CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A half-century ago, the nation’s top health experts urged the federal mine safety agency to enact tough rules protecting miners from toxic rock dust.
Inaction since – fueled by denials and lobbying by coal and other industries – has contributed to the untimely deaths of thousands of miners from pneumoconiosis, more commonly known as “black lung”. The problem has only worsened in recent years as miners dig through more layers of rock to access less accessible coal, generating deadly silica dust.
A former regulator has called the lack of protection against silica-related illnesses “astounding” and one of the most “catastrophic” occupational health problems in US history.
Now, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has proposed a rule that would cut the current silica exposure limit in half – a major victory for safety advocates. But there is skepticism and concerns that the government is following through after years of broken promises and delays.
James Bounds, a retired coal miner from Oak Hill, West Virginia, said nothing could be done to reverse the debilitating disease he was diagnosed with at age 37 in 1984. But he doesn’t want others to suffer the same fate.
“It’s not going to help me – I’m done mining,” said Bounds, 75, who now uses supplemental oxygen to breathe. “But we don’t want these young children to breathe like us.”
The rule, published in the Federal Register this month, reduces the allowable exposure limit for silica dust from 100 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for an 8-hour shift in coal, metal and nonmetal mines such as sand and gravel.
The proposal complies with exposure levels mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for construction and other non-mining industries. And that’s the standard the Centers for Disease Control recommended as far back as 1974.
Silicosis is an occupational pneumoconiosis caused by inhaling crystalline silica dust found in minerals such as sandstone. The US Department of Labor began studying silica and its impact on worker health in the 1930s, but the focus on stopping exposure in the workplace has largely ignored coal miners.
Instead, the regulations focused on coal dust, a distinct hazard created by crushing or pulverizing coal rock that also contributes to black lung.
In the decades that followed, silica dust became a major problem as Appalachian miners traversed layers of sandstone to reach less accessible coal seams in mountaintop mines where coal closer to the surface had long been mined. Silica dust is 20 times more toxic than coal dust and causes severe forms of black lung disease even after a few years of exposure.
It is estimated that one in five tenured miners in central Appalachia suffer from black lung disease; one in 20 people have the most disabling form of black lung.
Juveniles are also diagnosed at younger ages – some in their 30s and others with the advanced type in their 40s. “It’s just crazy,” said Dr. Carl Werntz, a West Virginia doctor who performs black lung exams and described the cases as “skyrocketing.”
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said there was no reason for a 35-year-old miner to be diagnosed with a disease “that will cost him his life”.
“Nobody should die because of a job they have,” Roberts said.
Existing MSHA silica standards were developed in the 1970s, around the time of the United States Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.
Pat McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University who was part of a state team investigating the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster that killed 29 miners, called the resurgence of black lung “unprecedented” when it comes to workplace health issues. At the Upper Big Branch mine, 71% of 24 miners who underwent autopsies were found to have black lungs.
“I can’t think of any occupation where there has been such devastation that has been ignored” by business and government, he said. “It’s breathtaking.”
The new rule is backed by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, who lobbied for change and issued a joint statement saying protecting miners from “dangerous levels of silica cannot wait.”
The MSHA will collect comments on the proposal until August 28, with three hearings scheduled in Arlington, Virginia, Beckley, West Virginia and Denver.
One problem should arise: the use of respiratory protective equipment.
The National Mining Association, which represents mine operators, wants workers to be allowed to use respirators as a method of compliance with the rule.
“These are accepted industrial hygiene practices used by” federal regulators in other industries, “but not in mining,” spokesman Conor Bernstein said, adding that better ventilation controls, safety awareness and coal dust regulations have all helped “exponentially lower dust levels” at U.S. mines in recent years.
The miners’ union and others, however, say respirators are ineffective when doing heavy work in hot, confined spaces common in mines. The proposed rule allows the use of respirators on a temporary basis while operators implement engineering controls. But advocates say inspectors aren’t around often enough to ensure they don’t become a permanent fix.
“The history of miner safety and health enforcement teaches us that exceptions become the rule,” said Sam Petsonk, a West Virginia attorney who represented miners who were diagnosed with black lung after operators knowingly violated regulations.
The proposed rule also includes a provision that allows companies to self-report silica levels. Federal inspectors perform spot checks to ensure accuracy, but mine operators still have leeway to manipulate report data, said Willie Dodson, central Appalachian field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, an advocacy group.
“Ideally, MSHA inspectors would take samples day after day at a given mine to determine compliance,” he said.
A coal dust examiner who worked for a Kentucky mining company was sentenced to six months in prison last month for tampering with dust samples and lying to federal officials.
In rural Nickelsville, Virginia, near the Tennessee border, Vonda Robinson says miners and their families need to be more accountable to the federal government and mine operators. Her husband John was diagnosed with black lung a decade ago at the age of 47. Now his doctors say he will need a lung transplant.
Vonda Robinson said her husband didn’t know what to say when his 5-year-old granddaughter asked him why he couldn’t run and play with her, why even walking to the end of the aisle left him physically exhausted.
“He’ll be like, ‘Honey, daddy can’t do that,'” she said.
During his 28 years of mining, John Robinson would come home with his face covered in dust. But she tried not to worry. Everyone in the community was mining coal.
“He was one of those people who wanted to go into the mines to give his family the American dream — the nice house, the vehicles, put our kids through college,” she said. “And that’s what he got.”
Daly reported from Washington.