After decades of intensive lobbying, petitions, heartfelt testimony, and the deaths of countless miners, federal regulators have finally taken an important step toward tighter restrictions on silica dust exposure, a change that could save thousands of lives.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration has proposed halve the permitted level of exposure to silica at 50 micrograms per cubic meter. This matches what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has mandated for other industries since 2016. Silica dust is toxic and long-term exposure can cause a slow but deadly hardening of lung tissue called progressive massive fibrosis, or, as it is called in coalfields, black lung disease. The toxin is increasingly abundant in mines as companies dig thinner seams of coal with greater impurities. Proponents of the stricter directive, which will apply to all miners regardless of what they mine from the earth, say it could go a long way to protecting workers. But even as they celebrate, they strategize on how to make the rule even stronger.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Vonda Robinson, vice president of the Black Lung Association.
Robinson knows the incalculable costs of lax mine safety regulations. Her husband, who worked 30 years underground in southwestern Virginia, was diagnosed with black lung at the age of 47 and spent years entangled in Byzantine federal benefit systems. She has been fighting for a higher standard for almost everyone, but she fears there are still loopholes that the industry will easily exploit.
“They’re just using the miner to line their pockets with money,” Robinson said. “The company is focused on production, production, production, let’s get the coal out, let’s get the coal out. They won’t sample properly.
Federal mining regulators, as well as the Kentucky and West Virginia coal associations, did not respond to requests for comment.
Much has been made of the responsibility of companies to sample dust to determine the amount of silica and other contaminants to which miners are exposed; this task is left to industry because the Mining Safety and Health Administration does not have the funding or personnel to do so. Robinson says regulators must deploy more inspectors if the highest standard, which awaits public comment and clearance from multiple agencies, is to be enforced. The Black Lung Association and other advocacy groups are gearing up to lobby for more funding for the agency and tighter monitoring of sampling.
Robinson, however, feels supported by the movement’s victories. Last year, the campaigns managed to get a permanently higher rate for the black lung excise tax, which the Internal Revenue Service levies on coal companies to support the fund from which distressed miners derive federal benefits. (Robinson’s next goal is to increase that benefit, which amounts to just $737 per month, or about $1,100 for minors with dependents.)
Along with other labor groups, miners and their advocates have long called for tougher silica standards. Although OSHA made silica a priority in 1995, when the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health saw a need for stricter exposure standards, it did not update its standard until 2016. The Mine Safety and Health Administration did not updated its guideline since 1985. Black lung patients and their advocates petitioned the agency for a review in 2011, but it only sent one to the Office of Management and Budget for review until l ‘last year. Public pressure grew in the months leading up to Friday’s June 30 announcement. Last week, US Senators Joe Manchin, Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, John Fettermain and Tim Kane, who all represent coal-producing states, signed an open letter urging quick action. They expressed their support for the rule after it was announced.
“We applaud the new rule proposed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to improve health protection for miners across the country,” they said in a statement. “We are calling for the rapid implementation of this rule as the protection of our hardworking miners from dangerous levels of silica cannot wait.”
If adopted, the rule will require routine medical tests for all minors, and require companies to find ways to limit exposure to silica through measures such as respirators. Once the rule is published in the Federal Register, the MSHA will launch a 45-day comment period, which will be punctuated by public hearings in Denver and Arlington, Virginia. Both will be streamed online.