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Black Lung

Congressional Panel Hears Black Lung Testimony, MSHA Chief Says No New Policy Needed

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Retired miner Gary Hairston shared with Congress the challenges of living with black lung. Photo: Courtesy Committee Livestream

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley Resource.

A Congressional panel heard testimony and had some sharp questions Thursday about the epidemic of black lung disease among Appalachian miners. Labor leaders are calling on federal regulators to strengthen protections for miners and several lawmakers wanted to know why the country’s top mine safety agency is not doing more in response to the dramatic increase in the preventable but deadly disease.

Progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of black lung disease, now afflicts roughly 2,500 miners, depriving them the ability to work, play and complete simple tasks, like walking to get the mail. A 2018 investigation from NPR, PBS Frontline and the ReSource found that far more miners had PMF than had been recognized in government reports, and that those cases were concentrated in central Appalachia.

A growing body of research indicates silica dust exposure contributes to the sharp rise in cases of black lung disease, which now afflicts as many as one in five experienced central Appalachian coal miners. Silica dust can be 20 times as harmful as coal dust alone, and the quartz-rich rock that produces it is common in central Appalachian mines. But federal regulators have resisted regulating silica dust exposure.

Congressional Oversight

Thursday’s hearing focused on how regulators have limited exposure to toxic silica dust, which is prevalent in the rock surrounding central Appalachian coal seams and which researchers believe is driving the dramatic rise in black lung disease.

Speaking to a workforce protection subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee, disabled West Virginia miner Gary Hairston recounted working in dust so heavy he could barely see. “I can’t play with my grandkid,” Hairston said. “I never thought at 48 I’d be unable to support my family.”

United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts criticized the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, for its reliance on companies to report dust levels. Roberts compared that to asking drivers to call the police and report their own speeding. He also urged legislators to require MSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard, which would allow the regulatory agency to enforce stricter silica monitoring standards before potentially decades-long research has been completed.

“Coal miners don’t have any time,” Roberts said.

MSHA chief David Zatezalo, a former mining company executive, has given conflicting answers to NPR and Ohio Valley ReSource reporters when questioned about the effects of silica dust exposure.

In Thursday’s testimony, Zatezelo told the subcommittee he does believe silica dust contributes to the surge in black lung cases. He championed his agency’s 99-percent compliance rate with existing standards. But he still faced tough questions over MSHA’s reluctance to strengthen  those standards to a level similar to that enforced by another workforce protection agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Due to the decades-long latency period between exposure and disease manifestation, a medically valid study cannot be completed in the near term,” Zatezelo said. “But MSHA anticipates the study will confirm that dramatic increases in sampling and compliance translate into reduced black lung incidence going forward.”

In what was hailed as a long-overdue change, MSHA in 2014 implemented a rule further limiting coal dust exposure, but that rule did not specifically target silica. Under the rule, when a mine exceeds coal dust or silica limits, it is placed on a reduced standard for coal dust, but not silica. Regulators say silica is difficult and expensive to monitor, so coal dust is used as a proxy for silica exposure. But the 2018 NPR investigation found thousands of instances where lowering coal dust standards overall did not bring silica dust to a safe level.

Robert Cohen, the director of the Mining Education and Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said miners who died recently were more than twice as likely to show signs of disease from silica, as opposed to disease from coal dust alone. He echoed Roberts’ call for stricter silica standards in line with those currently applicable to construction workers and workers in industries other than mining.

“Those regulations are stricter, they call for a lower level of silica dust to be the permissible limit, and I think that’s something we should really strongly consider,” Cohen said.

Trust Fund Concerns  

Lawmakers also heard concerns about the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which helps pay medical costs for about 25,600 miners disabled by the disease.

After initially promising to support the fund, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky allowed the tax on coal companies that supported the trust fund to lapse to a lower level at the end of last year. That lower tax rate on the industry will likely push the trust fund further into debt.

Cindy Brown Barnes, the director of education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office, said the already overburdened trust fund would face further challenges as more coal companies enter bankruptcy.

Brown Barnes said that if that industry tax is not restored to its pre-2019 level or higher, the fund may not have enough money to make payments to disabled miners by 2020 and will have to begin using taxpayer money.

“By 2050, our simulation shows that outstanding debt could reach $15 billion,” Brown Barnes reported.

As the black lung epidemic worsens, more miners and their families will likely rely on the trust fund.

Black Lung

Watchdog Group Calls Decreased Tax on Coal a ‘Blatant Subsidy’ for the Coal Industry

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In this Jan. 24, 2019 file photo, retired coal miner John Robinson, who suffers from black lung disease, displays his mining helmet at his home in Coeburn, Va. A report released Tuesday, Dec. 10 by the Washington-based group Taxpayers for Common Sense says a cut to the tax that coal companies pay to fund the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a trust for sick miners, will cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, is caused by inhaling dust in the lungs and has no cure. Photo: AP Photo/Dylan Lovan, File

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

A new report from the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says that an expired coal tax is effectively a taxpayer subsidy for the coal industry. The analysis reflects a growing concern about the fiscal health of a federal fund that supports tens of thousands of disabled coal miners. 

The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was established in 1969 to pay health care expenses for certain disabled coal miners and their dependents. It is supported by coal companies, which pay a limited tax on each ton of coal they remove from the ground. Early this year, Congress allowed the tax to decrease by more than 50 percent. The Government Accountability Office found the move would leave the fund $15 billion in debt by 2050, and would likely require a bailout by taxpayers. 

In the report, Taxpayers for Common Sense says the move is an effective subsidy of the coal industry, which already receives significant formal subsidization at the state and federal levels. 

“Because congress has failed to take action to keep rates current with what the fund needs to be solvent, taxpayers are now shouldering the burden of the cost of this fund, instead of the coal industry,” said Autumn Hanna, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. 

Hanna said the coal industry should include health care expenses for miners with black lung disease a non-negotiable part of their business plan, and that the 2018 tax cut was a “blatant subsidy” for an industry already receiving significant subsidies from the government. 

The report found that accounting for inflation, reducing the per-ton tax on coal means the tax holds about a quarter of the value it held in 1977, before the rate was raised to its 2018 level.  

The trust fund is under pressure not only from the cut in funding but also from increased demand as rates of black lung disease skyrocket, particularly in central Appalachia. 

Coal industry representatives have argued that the per-ton tax on coal that funded the trust fund was an undue burden in a time of financial stress for the industry. The industry has struggled in recent decades as utility companies switch to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.

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Black Lung

Study Shows Surface Coal Miners Are Exposed To Toxic Dust That Causes Black Lung

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Photo: Vivian Stockman and Southwings

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Appalachian surface coal miners are consistently overexposed to toxic silica dust, according to new research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and surface mine dust contains more silica than does dust in underground coal mines. 

The research is the first to specifically analyze long-term data on exposure to toxic silica dust for workers at surface mines. The work reveals that while attention has been trained on a surge in disease among underground coal miners, surface miners are similarly at risk of contracting coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. 

Black lung disease has been identified in coal miners in every coal-mining state at both surface and underground mines. NIOSH researchers were specifically interested in surface miners’ exposure because those mines produce the most coal and, in 2017, twice as many miners worked at surface mines compared to underground mines. 

Researchers analyzed 54,040 coal dust samples taken on surface mines between 1982 and 2017 to determine the percent of that coal dust that was silica, and found that the level of silica was above the permissible limit in 15 percent of those samples. Silica dust comes from quartz in the rock layers near coal seams, and it is significantly more harmful to lung tissue than coal dust alone. 

“The exposure to coal mine dust declined over time,” said lead researcher and industrial hygienist Brent Doney. “However … when you look at the percentage of silica that was in those samples, that didn’t drop.” 

After decades of successful reduction in black lung disease through safety controls in coal mines, black lung disease has been on the rise among coal miners for the last two decades. Central Appalachia has seen a marked increase in the most severe form of black lung, known as progressive massive fibrosis. A recent investigation from NPR and PBS Frontline found that federal regulators and the mining industry knew that exposure to silica dust was a major factor contributing to the surge in disease but failed to act to protect miners’ health. 

The surge in disease is putting strain on the already-indebted federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, and as younger miners become disabled due to black lung, the strain on Appalachian mining communities continues to grow. 

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is a particularly novel finding,” NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney said. “The evidence is very clear. We know that silica and mine dust are toxic, and we have the technology to suppress it, and yet coal miners are still exposed to way too much of it. So from a public health perspective, there’s ample evidence to suggest that further safeguards are necessary.”

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which regulates coal mining, issued in August a request for information to determine whether additional regulation of silica was necessary, and if so, how best to proceed. Some critics of the administration argued the move was too little given what is already known about silica’s role in disease. 

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MSHA Comment Period Shows Divide on Measures to Protect Miners Health

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In this Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015 file photo, Joe Main, third from left, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, and Patricia Silvey, center, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations with MSHA, speak with workers at the Gibson North mine, in Princeton, Ind. Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The comment period has closed for the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s proposed rule on respirable silica, a major contributor to skyrocketing rates of lung disease among coal miners. The 49 relevant comments included a striking testimony from an anonymous coal miner sharing details of the ways in which current mine operators cheat on dust monitoring protocols.

MSHA issued the request for comment following an NPR/PBS Frontline investigation that found the agency had failed to adequately protect miners despite knowing that silica dust was contributing to an epidemic of black lung disease. Silica is a component of coal mine dust, and is released when miners cut into rock layers surrounding seams of coal. Particulates lodge in miners’ lungs for the rest of their lives, hardening lung tissue and preventing them from getting enough oxygen. 

The miner submitted testimony through the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, which withheld the miner’s name out of concern for the safety of his job. The miner said he worked underground for eight years before getting an MSHA dust sampling certification in 2017. 

“I only did the dust sampling for a few months because the mine I was working for appeared to be violating the rules so much that I was afraid they would get caught and I would be held responsible,” the miner wrote.

“I learned that the company would hang the CPDMs in the intake air,” the miner continued. 

CPDMs refer to Continuous Personal Dust Monitors, devices designed to be worn by miners and to report real-time dust levels. Hanging the device in the flow of clean air would trigger its motion sensor, tricking the device into recording that a miner was wearing it while working while ensuring it only tracked clean air. 

“This letter reflects what a lot of miners tell me when they come to me for black lung evaluations,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, director of the Mining Education and Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They often report that they could get in trouble if they turned in what they called a bad sample, that they were told to or encouraged to make sure their dust samples did not exceed the exposure limits.” 

In its request for comment, MSHA said it would consider stronger environmental controls and a lower exposure limit, but it also suggested it was open to the use of personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as airstream helmets, which miners say are too bulky and uncomfortable for frequent use. 

“A lot of the mines buy what they want and they’re big and uncomfortable,” wrote commenter John Ormsbee, who identified himself as a current miner, speaking of the challenges of using personal protective equipment to meet silica standards. “Most make your glasses fog up and create a bigger hazard.”

Cohen submitted a comment on behalf of the American Thoracic Society, which supports a separately enforceable silica standard. “PPE is an unreliable method of controlling dust exposure,” Cohen said. “It makes no sense that we would allow PPE and therefore have less stringent air control requirements That would be a huge disservice, and it would go against our hierarchy of controls and our understanding of industrial hygiene that’s been in place for generations.”

The National Mining Association did not submit a comment, but has previously supported increased use of PPE. 

The Appalachian Citizens Law Center and the United Mine Workers of America both urged MSHA to adopt an emergency temporary standard to reflect the urgent need to address dust exposure for working miners. 

Industry groups in associated fields, such as the Portland Cement Association and the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association urged MSHA to regulate coal mining separately from other industries that also expose workers to respirable silica.

Roughly 20 percent of experienced Appalachian coal miners have some form of black lung disease. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that nation-wide, rates of black lung are higher than they’ve been since record-keeping began in the 1970s.

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