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Action Needed on Silica Dust to Curb Black Lung



September 1, 2022 - It was a small remark. You could’ve almost missed it. Many probably did.

A little less than two weeks ago, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was in a roundtable discussion in Charleston, surrounded by supporters of the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act. Among the group was United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, who was there to voice his support for the portion of the act that permanently funds the Federal Black Lung Disability Trust.

Before going into why he supports the legislation, Roberts made a brief, almost quiet statement about the need to address silica dust in the mining industry. It was an aside, but it was important.

As many readers know, black lung is a condition among miners resulting from the buildup of dust in the lungs, which, over time, affects a miner’s ability to breathe and can be fatal. Traditionally, the problem stemmed from exposure to coal dust over years, and miners would develop the condition late in their career or after they had retired. Improved safety standards, including better ventilation in mines, helped reduce the disease.

Then, the number or cases started surging again. By 2018, black lung cases were at a 25-year high and miners were developing severe cases at much younger ages. The problem was — and remains — particularly bad in Appalachian mining states, like West Virginia. The suspected culprit was silica dust. A study authored by several physicians and researchers released earlier this year supports that conclusion.

The coal industry has been in a long decline, with brief booms here or there. Many factors have played into this broad trend and, in West Virginia, one of those factors is depleted coal seams. There just isn’t as much of the stuff underground as there used to be. What is there is hard to access.

For years, miners have had to cut through sandstone to reach extractable coal. That releases silica dust, which is composed of microscopic crystals. As miners inhale the dust, their lungs are punctured. Over time, this leads to an irreversible buildup of fluid in the lungs. Miners are unable to work and are placed on oxygen tanks. Just walking across a room can be exhausting. Eventually, they suffocate to death.

This is happening to miners at younger and younger ages because silica inhalation is more severe and, unlike coal dust or any number of other air quality pollutants in a mine, exposure to silica dust isn’t well-regulated.

It’s a longstanding problem that the government has failed to address. In fact, regulatory officials under presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump tried to come up with ways to handle the problem, but weren’t able to accomplish much. Their efforts typically stalled out once coal lobbyists and industry attorneys got involved, which is a familiar story to West Virginians.

However, in June, the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced another initiative to try and regulate the problem through increased inspections at coal mines with a history of overexposure to silica; increased enforcement and oversight; expanded air quality testing; inspection of mining techniques to ensure unnecessary amounts of dust aren’t released; and frequently reminding miners of their right to report violations.

Roberts released a statement at the time praising the effort. Time will tell if it’s successful.

The Black Lung Trust makes sure miners with this awful condition have their medical expenses covered when their employers can’t do so or have shirked responsibility through bankruptcy.

It’s an essential service, and making sure it is funded is crucial to many West Virginians.

What would be even better is preventing the condition wherever possible. Hopefully, this new initiative will prove effective.