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New federal safety rules on silica dust aim to protect miners' lungs

The safety rules being announced and finalized today are projected to save about 10 times more miners from catastrophic lung disease than the rules that were first proposed. These x-rays show black lung disease.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon for PBS Frontline
The safety rules being announced and finalized today are projected to save about 10 times more miners from catastrophic lung disease than the rules that were first proposed. These x-rays show black lung disease.

On Tuesday, federal officials posted new rules to protect coal and other miners from toxic silica dust, a growing problem in mines that has left thousands sick and dying.

It took mine safety regulators 50 years to do what federal researchers had long urged: make the exposure limit to silica dust twice as restrictive as currently allowed and directly regulate exposure so citations and fines are possible when miners are overexposed.

The new regulation also imposes for miners the same silica exposure limits that already apply to all other workers in the United States.

"No miner should ever have to sacrifice their health or lungs in order to provide for their family," said Chris Williamson, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration acted after joint investigative reporting by NPR, Ohio Valley ReSource, Public Health Watch, Mountain State Spotlight and Louisville Public Media exposed: a once-hidden epidemic of severe, incurable and fatal black lung disease; thousands of cases of disease among younger and younger miners; thousands of instances of ongoing overexposure to silica dust; and decades of failure to respond.

"It is unconscionable that our nation's miners have worked without adequate protection from silica dust despite it being a known health hazard for decades," acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su said in a prepared statement.

MSHA revealed key elements of the regulation Monday night and published the full text of the final rule in the Federal Register on Tuesday morning, just before a news conference in Uniontown, Penn., before an audience of mine safety advocates and union representatives.

The new regulation requires mining companies to monitor the air miners breathe while working, and adjust working conditions when excess silica dust is present. Instances of overexposure must be reported to MSHA, a requirement that was not in a regulation initially proposed last year but was inserted after the news organizations' reporting and complaints from mine safety advocates.

The agency also makes a slightly stronger case for action. The proposed regulation failed to take into account the thousands of cases of severe or complicated black lung that have already occurred. The joint investigations by NPR, Public Health Watch and their partners documented more than 4,000 cases of disease since 2010, and hundreds of deaths. But the agency predicted the new regulation would prevent only 244 cases of disease and 63 deaths of coal miners over 60 years.

Jess Bishop takes his last breaths while his sons — also coal miners — keep vigil in Logan County, W.Va., in 1976. Since 2010, more than 4,000 coal miners have been diagnosed with advanced black lung disease.
/ Earl Dotter
Earl Dotter
Jess Bishop takes his last breaths while his sons — also coal miners — keep vigil in Logan County, W.Va., in 1976. Since 2010, more than 4,000 coal miners have been diagnosed with advanced black lung disease.

A strong case for stricter regulation is critical given possible industry and congressional opposition.

The final regulation explicitly excludes the cases reported by black lung clinics and cited in our investigative reporting. "Newer data from Black Lung Clinics can provide suggestive evidence of the risks, but because it is not yet incorporated into...peer-reviewed risk models, it cannot be included in this analysis," the rule reads.

So, for coal mines, the agency says the new regulation will prevent 325 cases of disease and 85 deaths.

"This is a critical step to keeping miners safe and healthy not just day to day, but for their full lifetime," said Cecil Roberts, international president of the United Mine Workers of America. "Now, our focus shifts to holding mining companies accountable."

Silica is one of Earth's most abundant minerals, and it's about 20 times more toxic than coal dust. It's typical in the quartz that surrounds coal seams, especially in central Appalachia.

Not just coal miners

Mining companies are being given time to adapt to the regulatory changes. Coal mines have a year to prepare. All other mines, collectively known as metal/nonmetal mines (MNM), have two years. That's because the regulation imposes requirements that have never existed for MNM mines, including a health surveillance program with free periodic exams to detect early stages of silica-caused lung disease. The results of those exams must be reported to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which has monitored the health of coal miners for decades.

MNM mines will also be required to do more dust sampling. Both that and the medical surveillance program will require extensive and costly additions to the mining process. That could trigger challenges.

The new regulation is a monumental shift for MSHA, which identified a cluster of silica-caused black lung disease in 1996, and warned the mining industry about over exposure, but failed to impose new requirements. Agency officials at the time blamed industry opposition.

"It's a good rule," said Vonda Robinson, vice president of the National Black Lung Association. But she said she's disappointed that most of the dust monitoring will be conducted by mining companies and not federal mine inspectors.

"The coal operators should not do the testing," Robinson said in an interview. "I simply do not trust them."

Is it enough?

MSHA inspectors will monitor mine air for toxic dust during quarterly inspections. But that's only four times a year.

"If the mines have to play a part in it, let them play a small part, but not the critical part," said Debbie Johnson, a nurse at a black lung clinic in West Virginia whose husband suffers from the advanced stage of disease.

"That should be done by MSHA. So our government needs to...give MSHA some more money so they can get some people out there."

MSHA's resources are already strained and Congress denied a $50 million budget increase for more mine inspections and more silica dust sampling. Some Republicans in Congress have already tried to prohibit MSHA spending for implementation of the silica dust regulation.

The National Mining Association, which represents mine operators, welcomed one key element of the new regulation.

"We fully support the new, lower [silica dust] limits contained in the rule and are committed to working to improve the health and safety of our miners," said Ashley Burke, the association's spokeswoman.

Federal officials vowed to take a hardline stance with any mining companies that don't fall in line with the new requirements.

"Any operator sampling that is required under this final rule is in addition to the existing silica sampling that MSHA already conducts. It's not a replacement for it' it's in addition to," said Williamson, who is with the federal mine safety agency.

Cecil Roberts, the president of the mine workers' union, was especially animated at the announcement, shouting and pounding on the podium as he spoke. He expressed the dire need for unions and the government to keep mine companies in check in order to protect miners, even as coal jobs are on the decline.

"We're trying to save people's lives!" he said.

Vonda Robinson has watched her husband suffer from black lung disease. She suggested the stakes are high for miners in MSHA's attempt to finally get tough on silica dust.

"The miners need to have a healthy life mining coal," she said. "And not leave their family at a young age from dying from black lung disease and silica."

This is a developing story and may be updated.

Howard Berkes is a member of the Public Health Watch board of directors. Berkes is a former NPR investigations correspondent who collaborated with PBS Frontline on a landmark 2018 investigation exposing an epidemic of advanced black lung disease and the failure of federal regulators to prevent it. Justin Hicks is a data reporter for Louisville Public Media. Allen Siegler of Mountain State Spotlight contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
Justin Hicks
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