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Black Lung

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.

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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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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