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Black Lung

Mining Regulators Seek Information On Silica Dust Exposure

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Photo: CDC/NIOSH

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration announced Wednesday it will collect information on how dust from silica, or quartz, has contributed to Appalachia’s worsening epidemic of black lung disease, and ways that mining operations might prevent exposure. 

The announcement comes after an NPR investigation last year found that MSHA had failed to sufficiently regulate silica dust exposure, contributing to the increase in disease among coal miners. Silica dust comes from quartz found in rock layers near coal seams and can be far deadlier than coal dust alone. MSHA’s existing standards on coal dust can indirectly serve to limit miners’ exposures to quartz in respirable dust. But its standards are less stringent than those that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration applies to other kinds of workplace exposures. 

The move marks a departure from MSHA’s previous stance, which was that a request for information on the effects of a 2014 coal dust rule would be sufficient. That rule further limited coal dust exposure and was hailed as an important and overdue move to protect miners, but it did not specifically address silica dust exposure. 

In the request for information, which will be published Thursday, MSHA said it “recognizes the importance of controlling miners’ exposure to quartz and seeks information and data to determine if existing engineering and environmental controls can continuously protect miners.”

The request for information seeks input on economically and technically feasible solutions to silica exposure, including a lower silica dust standard and controls such as masks and respirators to help achieve compliance. 

Miners exposed to quartz can develop lung diseases that are preventable, progressive and may lead to death. As many as one in five experienced coal miners in the Appalachian region has some form of black lung. 

Rates of black lung disease are particularly high among Appalachian coal miners. Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

Coal miners are exposed to more quartz dust now than in the past because they are often mining thinner seams of coal and are using machinery that can produce more dust than was produced with older forms of mining. 

“MSHA is aware that there may be conditions where existing engineering or environmental controls may not be adequate to continuously protect miners’ health in areas where there are high levels of quartz dust,” MSHA said in the request for information. 

The mining industry has known since the 1970s that silica dust was harmful to miners’ health. But efforts to regulate the dust have stalled, largely due to pressure from industry groups. 

“The Department of Labor is committed to having the information to make important decisions in order to best protect America’s miners,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella in a press release. 

MSHA will accept comments for 60 days.

Black Lung

New Kentucky Memorial Honors Miners Who Died Of Black Lung

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The memorial lists hundreds of local miners who have died from black lung. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Coal miners and family members of miners who have died from black lung disease gathered Sunday in Whitesburg, Kentucky, to dedicate a new memorial to miners who perished from the workplace disease. 

While Appalachian coal country has several memorials to mining disasters, this is believed to be the first memorial to remember the thousands of men and women who died from black lung.

A dedication service for the new black lung memorial in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

The engraved black stone memorial stands at Riverside Park in Whitesburg and will list the names of some 200 Letcher County coal miners who died of the disease.

William McCool was the first person to suggest the memorial after his father died of the disease.  

“You know, let’s give these men the honor they deserve. Let’s not forget them,” he said.

The total number of coal miners who have died from the disease is unknown, but the Department of Labor says more than a thousand coal miners die of black lung each year. Black lung cases are surging in the Ohio Valley, and health officials say about one in five experienced miners in central Appalachian has some form of the disease. 

Experts say the epidemic is getting worse because miners are working in thinner seams of coal, and are exposed to higher levels of silica, or quartz dust, from the surrounding rock layers, which is more toxic than coal dust alone.

McCool also suffers from black lung. He expects his name will be on the stone memorial one day, too.

“It would be a blessing to be with them boys,” he said.

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Black Lung

Federal Agency to Hear Comments on Silica Dust as Black Lung Epidemic Rages

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In this Wednesday, May 11, 2016 photo, Scott Tiller, left, a coal miner of 32 years, talks with Donnie Coleman, chief safety director and a coal miner of almost 40 years, about a new federal regulation they must adhere to as they work at an underground coal mine in Welch, W.Va. Photo: David Goldman/AP Photo

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration will host a public meeting Thursday as it considers action on regulating respirable silica, one of the major contributors to Appalachia’s skyrocketing rates of black lung disease. 

MSHA issued a request for information in response to calls for increased regulation after a 2018 investigation from NPR and PBS Frontline. That investigation found that the agency had failed to adequately protect miners despite knowing that silica, or quartz dust, was contributing to an epidemic of black lung. Silica dust is produced from cutting into layers of rock surrounding coal seams. At least 10 percent of coal miners with 25 or more years of underground work experience suffer from the disease, a sharp increase from the 1990s. 

A 2014 rule strengthened controls on mine dust overall, but did not address silica specifically. The agency’s meeting and request might signal interest in further regulation. However, some critics say it is too little, too late. Former MSHA regulator Celeste Monforton has spoken out against MSHA’s lack of action on silica exposure and said she sees little progress now. 

“They’re not suggesting in any way that they’re planning to do a regulation. They don’t even mention that in this request for information,” Monforton said of MSHA. “All MSHA is doing is saying, ‘We are aware of these cases, there’s a suggestion that it’s related to silica, so tell us what you think about this, let us know if you have any ideas.’”

MSHA said in its announcement of the hearing that it would also consider the viability of personal protective equipment such as air-flow helmets to keep silica below existing standards. That stance is in keeping with mining industry groups’ preferred method of control. Such an approach would place greater responsibility for the safety of workers themselves. Some public health experts say personal protective equipment is most effective in combination with rigorous environmental controls. 

Assistant Secretary of Labor David Zatezelo leads MSHA in the Trump administration. A former coal company executive, Zatezelo has been reluctant to agree with the growing scientific consensus on silica’s ongoing role in the black lung epidemic. He told a Congressional panel in June that he wanted to wait to see what effects the 2014 coal dust rule would have on limiting exposure to silica. 

“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.”

At that hearing, the administrator said MSHA would be reluctant to act unless it was to implement personal protective equipment. 

Lawmakers are facing increased pressure to address the epidemic. Over the summer, dozens of disabled coal miners made the day-long trip from central Appalachia to Washington, D.C., to urge lawmakers to support a black lung benefits fund and strengthen regulatory controls for current miners.

House Education and Labor committee chair Rep. Bobby Scott said in a statement in June that, “Today’s silica standards are not sufficient to protect miners,” and if MSHA did not act, “Congress has no choice but to take action on behalf of workers and their families.”

Monforton, the former MSHA official, said MSHA’s new request for information is an effort to thread the needle by appearing to take some action without committing to changing regulations in a meaningful way. 

“MSHA would be in an awkward position to not take some step,” Monforton said. “I wouldn’t even call it a regulatory step, but because it’s technically listed on the regulatory agenda, the agency can describe it as a regulatory step.”

The hearing is scheduled to last for eight hours and will take place at MSHA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. 

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Black Lung

Coal Miners To Hit Capitol Hill For Black Lung Funding

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Disabled miner Barry Johnson wears an oxygen tube to assist breathing. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Dozens of Appalachian coal miners plan to visit Capitol Hill Tuesday to ask lawmakers to bolster funding for the black lung disability trust fund, which miners depend upon when no responsible company can be identified to pay for needed health care. 

The fund is already billions of dollars in debt, and that will likely grow as more miners develop the disease and coal companies pay less into the fund. Coal companies pay a tax to support the trust fund, which pays monthly income and health benefits for miners who were disabled by the preventable and deadly occupational disease. 

The tax rate was increased in 1981 to pay down the fund’s debts and in 2008 that tax rate was extended for another 10 years. But Congress allowed the tax rate to expire last year and companies now pay about half as much per ton of coal. 

Now the trust fund’s debt is expected to rise from $4 billion to $15 billion by 2050. 

Over 25,000 miners and their dependents rely on the fund for monthly income and health benefits. Demand is expected to grow as diagnoses of severe forms of the disease skyrocket, particularly among Appalachian miners. 

Barry Johnson is planning to make the trip to Washington. A fourth-generation coal miner, he takes great pride in his decades of hard work underground. Johnson has a serious form of black lung disease called progressive massive fibrosis.

He carries a portable oxygen tank, though he tries to use it as little as possible so his lungs don’t get used to the help. “I have good days and bad days,” he said, gazing at the collection of hardhats on his mantelpiece. “Today is a bad day.” 

Johnson used to enjoy spending time in the woods hunting for ginseng. Now he struggles with daily tasks. “It doesn’t only take your health. It takes your identity.” 

Travelling isn’t easy for the disabled miner, but he says the long trip to Washington D.C. is worth it. Johnson worries that if Congress doesn’t act, the fund could no longer be able to make its payments, or would need to be bailed out by taxpayers. 

Industry Woes

Despite favorable policies from the Trump administration, the coal industry has continued to struggle amid high-profile bankruptcies and the closure of more coal-fired power plants. 

“This is an industry that is still working hard to stabilize after years of decline – now is clearly not the time to raise taxes on the coal industry,” said National Mining Association spokesperson Ashley Burke. “Doing so would further disadvantage coal against competing energy sources.”

Black lung activists say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky could have preserved the trust fund tax rate before it expired last year. Indeed, he suggested to the Ohio Valley ReSource in October that he would do so. 

McConnell’s staff members say the issue is a concern for him.

“Even though the temporary tax increase expired last year, current benefits for our impacted miners and their families have remained at prior levels,” said McConnell spokesperson Stephanie Penn. “Senator McConnell and his staff have been working closely with interested parties regarding future funding for the program, and will continue to ensure these important benefits are maintained.”

McConnell’s office says he’s agreed to speak with the visiting miners. Miner Barry Johnson knows exactly what he wants to say.

“You have a duty and an obligation,” he said. “Do what’s right.” 

Potential Action

Brandon Crum, a Kentucky-based radiologist who first sounded the alarm about the epidemic, said last month that the past six months have been the worst of his career, as cases of severe black lung disease pile up. 

An NPR and PBS Frontline investigation found that the surge in disease, which is significantly focused on central Appalachia, is largely the result of a failure by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to regulate silica dust, which is prevalent in the rock surrounding Appalachian coal seams. 

Congress is paying attention. A House Education and Labor subcommittee in June considered whether MSHA had taken silica exposure risk seriously enough.

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.

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