New rule aims to limit miners’ silica dust exposure but still relies on coal company self-oversight

Published 10:31 am Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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By Liam Niemeyer

Kentucky Lantern

Gary Harriston, 69, compares what it feels like to have coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, known commonly as black lung, to running out of air or not being able to “catch my wind.”

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He remembers working as a coal miner decades ago and dashing to a bathhouse to get out of a rain — and knowing. “I started running up there. At the steps when I got into the bathhouse, I’m standing there, can’t breathe. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, you’re getting ready to die,’” Harriston said. “That’s when I really realized that I had it. It was kind of a scary situation.”

In recent decades, a surge of black lung — and a surge in more severe cases of the disease — has struck Appalachian coal miners, including in Kentucky, with diagnoses coming decades earlier in life than before.

A study last year confirmed that miners’ exposure to silica dust was driving the recent epidemic of severe black lung.

As modern mining machines became more efficient at chipping into rock to reach coal seams, black lung experts have said, coal miners were exposed to higher rates of crystalline silica dust created by cutting through quartz, along with exposure to coal dust that has long been present in mines.  Breathing excessive dust leads to pneumoconiosis that cripples lung capacity and leads to death. More accessible coal seams are gone, Harriston said, which means more rock must be cut to reach the coal that’s left, creating more dust for miners to breathe.

Harriston, the National Black Lung Association president who lives in Beckley, West Virginia, believes a long-awaited regulation will help contain the recent epidemic of black lung and protect current and future miners. But the proposed rule is by no means perfect, he and others say.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) previously regulated only exposure to overall levels of dust during a coal miner’s work shift, as measured by dust monitors worn by miners.

A proposed rule published July 13 would create a separate exposure limit for silica dust, lower the maximum exposure limit for silica dust and create an “action level” of exposure lower than the limit that would require a coal mine operator to take “periodic” dust samples.

Coal companies still responsible for dust monitoring

A major problem remains with the proposal, according to advocates: MSHA largely still relies on dust sampling data submitted by the companies themselves.

Coal companies across Appalachia have a history of cheating on dust sampling, with a couple Kentucky coal companies pleading guilty to federal charges in recent years for doing so.

Willie Dodson, the Central Appalachian field coordinator for the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, said he’s heard anecdotes from miners in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia about not trusting company-submitted dust samples. One example of concerns include samples being taken only in less dusty parts of a mine.

“A lot of the samples are taken by a monitor that a worker wears, and so which worker is wearing it and what part of the operation is that worker working in has a huge influence on, ‘Is it really reflecting the conditions that most of the workers are in?’” Dodson said.

Dodson said common stories from miners also include operators temporarily changing the working conditions of mines on days when they know federal inspectors are coming, including improving ventilation and hanging curtains to contain dust.

The president of the Kentucky Coal Association, representing mining companies in the state, did not immediately respond to an interview request about the proposed rule.

Dodson said it would be better to have MSHA inspectors conduct more of the sampling themselves, but the federal agency has struggled with maintaining funding in recent years. An article by Dodson published in April detailed an analysis that showed funding for MSHA had fallen since 2013 along with the number of coal mine inspectors employed by the agency.

“I mean, if MSHA was just rolling in dough and not investing it more in mine inspectors, then I might be more upset,” Dodson said. “I’m upset at Congress for not giving MSHA the money they need to protect coal miners.”

With the proposal now open for public comment, MSHA plans to hold three public hearings on the new regulation in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 2, Beckley, West Virginia on Aug. 10 and Denver, Colorado, on Aug. 21.

MSHA announced the addition of a hearing in Beckley, West Virginia following criticism by mine safety advocates that the two other hearings were not particularly close to Appalachian coal communities.

Courtney Rhoades, the black lung organizer for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, said advocates are “going to make sure that Central Appalachia is heard” in the months ahead.

“The coal mines continue to be plagued by this epidemic. But this silica rule is the first step to hopefully changing that,” Rhoades said.