Federal regulators reluctant to address silica levels in mines, which causes black-lung disease; Congress sets hearing

Scientists, activists and miners continue to call for action in fighting black-lung disease, and though Congressional leaders have scheduled investigative hearings for later this month, “federal mine safety regulators show little indication of making any meaningful change to policies meant to protect miners from harmful dust exposure,” Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley Resource.

Black lung is a progressive, debilitating, sometimes fatal disease that affects as many as one in five experienced coal miners in Central Appalachia. Miners can get black lung from inhaling dust churned up while mining and transporting coal. Though the dust once mainly came from coal, new research has found that silica dust from cutting through rock is now the leading cause of a form of black lung called diffuse dust fibrosis (usually called DDF).

A joint reporting project between NPR’s Howard Berkes and the PBS program “Frontline” detailed federal regulators’ failure to protect miners even after they knew toxic dust was causing black-lung disease.

“The mining community has known since the 1970s that silica is far more toxic than coal dust alone, and federal researchers and miner advocates have fought for decades to implement more stringent coal dust standards. But those efforts have stalled, often because of pressure from industry,” Boles reports. Though a 2014 Mine Safety and Health Administration rule further limited coal dust exposure, it didn’t specifically address silica dust exposure.

Regulators say silica dust is hard to measure, and that they essentially use coal dust levels as an indicator of silica dust levels, research has shown that lowering overall dust levels often doesn’t reduce silica dust to safe levels. “Despite the mounting evidence of silica’s role in the epidemic, there is little sign that regulators are planning to do anything differently to control dust exposure,” Boles reports. “Under the Trump administration, legislators and regulators have made moves to change some health and safety controls and raised concerns among health advocates that the changes would weaken protections in order to reduce costs for the mining industry.”

Former mining executive David Zatezelo, whom President Trump appointed to lead the MSHA, said in September that silica must be controlled, but said the science didn’t conclusively link silica exposure and severe black lung disease.

Earlier this month at the West Virginia Black Lung Association conference, United Mine Workers president advocated for stronger regulations for silica dust. “Roberts called on Congress to step in if regulators would not, and he may get his wish. Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, pledged to conduct hearings in response to NPR’s 2018 investigation,” Boles reports. “A committee staffer confirmed on background that those hearings are scheduled for June 20.”

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.