By Liz Mooney
July 10, 2021 - As black lung disease surges, an advocacy group is urging President Joe Biden’s administration to protect coal miners.
Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit law firm, submitted a petition to the Mine Safety and Health Administration Thursday requesting the creation of a rule that would reduce silica dust in coal mines.
Black lung disease is caused by inhaling dust created during mining and transporting coal. Silica dust, compared to coal dust, has become the lead cause of black lung in recent years.
Incidence of the disease is increasing drastically. In Central Appalachia, one in five tenured miners has black lung disease, and one in 20 have the most severe and totally disabling form of the disease, Progressive Massive Fibrosis, according to a 2018 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
A display case at NIOSH shows a normal lung and a diseased black lung, caused by inhaling coal dust and other harmful particles while coal mining.
By Howard Berkes, NPR
The Mine Act under which MSHA operates requires the agency to regulate dust so that “no miner will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity,” even if the employee spent their working life in a coal mine.
“It’s killing people, that’s what is wrong with the miners today, they work their lives in the mines and 10 years later they’re dead,” said Jay McCool, vice president of the Black Lung Association of Southeastern Kentucky. “They need to fix it and make mines compliant. The miners are getting silica in their lungs, and they need to find a better way to control it and monitor it.”
More than 10 years ago, the law center petitioned the Mine Safety and Health Administration to establish a dust standard for respirable crystalline silica. Despite a response from MSHA stating their intention to create a standard by 2011, the rule was never put into place. The silica standard for coal miners has not been updated since 1985.
In 2016, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration established a reduced silica standard, which provided miners less protection than other workers.
Wes Addington, director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, said MSHA’s failure to create a standard years ago has cost many miners their health and quality of life.
“Before 2010, we rarely encountered miners diagnosed with complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or progressive massive fibrosis,” Addington said in a statement. “Since that time, scores of miners have come through our doors with very severe disease. They are younger and sicker than ever before and have been robbed of the life they hoped would follow their careers in the coal mines. A silica standard is long, long overdue.”
An MSHA spokesperson said in an email the agency is developing a proposed rule for respirable crystalline silica.
Representatives of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and the Kentucky Coal Association were not immediately available for comment.