By:  Sam Pearson
Source: Bloomberg Law

Mine Safety Chief Urged to Cut Silica Limit to Stem Black Lung

The Trump administration’s top mine safety official declined to say if silica exposure limits should be lowered amid pressure from House Democrats to address rising levels of black lung disease in former coal miners.

The issue was addressed June 20 at a hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, where Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal research agency, and outside scientists, cases of black lung disease and its worst form, progressive massive fibrosis, are increasing.

“This is a health epidemic, and we need to act now,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said. “We’ve got convincing scientific evidence to indicate that. The lives of miners are at stake.”

It’s thought that miners are tapping thinner seams of coal as reserves are exhausted in mining zones like central Appalachia. That releases higher levels of silica, which is far worse for miners’ lungs than coal dust and can trigger black lung more quickly. The Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration both regulate employee exposure to silica, but the MSHA limit of 100 micrograms per cubic meter allows for exposures twice as high as for other workers.

In its most recent regulatory agenda, MSHA said it plans to issue a request for information, the first step in determining if regulatory changes should be made, by next month. David Zatezalo, the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for mine safety and health, said he’s doing all he can.

“I promised that I would obey the laws,” Zatezalo said. The Administrative Procedure Act is part of those laws, he added, referring to the federal law requiring agencies to have adequate justifications for issuing new regulations.

Should the agency issue a regulation, it could increase costs for coal operators if they need to modify operations or purchase new equipment, though it may save money if fewer miners develop black lung. 

What to Do

MSHA wants to explore if miners could use additional personal protective equipment to allow them to work under conditions that would otherwise be too dusty, Zatezalo said. But that may not be practical for many miners, who can’t wear safety equipment such as respirators that protect their lungs but impair their ability to see and move around in tight spaces, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America union, told lawmakers.

Miners dying in recent years are more than twice as likely to have progressive massive fibrosis than in the past, Robert Cohen, director of the Mining Education and Research Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago School of Public Health, told lawmakers.

Even for ex-miners with less serious forms of the disease, the consequences can be debilitating: They must catch their breath every few minutes, losing their ability to work in the coal fields, pursue hobbies, and support their families, Cohen said.

When Gary Hairston, a former coal miner now serving as the vice president of the Fayette County Black Lung Association in Beckley, W.Va., wants to play with his grandson, “I can just watch him play ball,” he told lawmakers. “I can’t even help him.”

But the coal industry and some Republican lawmakers said because black lung disease develops slowly, they aren’t sure if the increased black lung cases stem from current mining practices or are the effects of mistakes made in previous decades. Regulators should wait to see if a 2014 mine safety regulation reducing allowable levels of coal dust—but not silica—was leading to a reduction in black lung cases, Bruce Waltzman, a former senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association before his retirement in 2018, told the subcommittee.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, told Bloomberg Law he wasn’t sure if legislation should be developed or if MSHA will take action on its own, but Waltzman’s stance left him “a little concerned.”

“I don’t know how long he expects to wait,” Scott said.