US Restricts Deadly Mining Dust as Black Lung Resurrects

Federal regulators on Tuesday issued new protections for miners against a type of dust long known to cause deadly lung disease — changes recommended by government researchers half a century ago.

Mining companies will have to limit concentrations of airborne silica, a mineral commonly found in rocks that can be lethal if ground up and inhaled. The new requirements affect more than 250,000 miners who mine coal, a variety of metals and minerals used in products such as cement and smartphones. Tuesday's announcement is the culmination of a tortuous regulatory process that has spanned four presidential administrations.

The miners paid dearly for the delay. As progress on the rule stalled, government researchers documented with growing alarm a resurgence of severe black lung afflicting younger coal miners, and studies pointed to poorly controlled silica as the likely cause.

“It should shock the conscience to know that there are people in this country who do incredibly hard work that we all benefit from and who are already disabled before they reach 40,” said Chris Williamson, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, who issued the rule. “We knew the existing standard was not protective enough.”

The new requirements were announced Tuesday morning by Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su at an event in Pennsylvania. It comes eight years after a sister agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, issued similar protections for workers in other industries, such as construction, countertop manufacturing and fracking.

Both mine safety advocates and industry groups generally support the central rule change: halving the allowable concentration of silica dust. But their views on the rule, proposed last July, differ sharply on enforcement, with mining industry groups arguing that the requirements are unnecessarily broad and costly, and miners' advocates warning that companies are largely left to control themselves.

The dangers of breathing finely ground silica were evident nearly a century ago, when hundreds of workers died of lung disease after drilling a tunnel through silica-rich rock near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. It remains one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history. .

In 1974, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal research agency, recommended reducing existing limits on silica in the air workers breathe. For years the relationship languished.

The agency reiterated its recommendation in 1995, and a Labor Department advisory panel reached the same conclusion the following year. Both also recommended reviewing the existing application for coal mines – a complicated arrangement in which regulators have sought to control silica levels by reducing dust overall.

In 1996, work began on a rule that would give regulators police power in coal mines. The effort was later expanded to include lowering the silica limit for all miners, but repeatedly stalled during the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

In interviews, agency leaders during the Clinton and Obama administrations described a mix of politics, industry opposition and competing priorities that prevented progress on the silica rule. Both said they had prioritized a separate rule to regulate overall dust levels in coal mines, which took years to complete and was finalized in 2014.

“I regret that we couldn't get a lot of things done, and silica is one of them,” said Davitt McAteer, who ran the agency from 1994 to 2000.

Joe Main, who led it from 2009 to 2017, said his agency had planned to take advantage of the work of OSHA, which faced long delays before issuing its 2016 silica rule. “But time for our administration it has expired,” he said.

Meanwhile, after years of declining rates of black lung, caused by breathing coal and silica dust, rates of the severe form of the disease had increased. In the 1990s, fewer than 1 percent of central Appalachian miners who had worked at least 25 years underground had this advanced stage of the disease. In 2015 the percentage had risen to 5%.

Because of changes in mining practices, workers cut more rock, producing more silica dust. The effects began to show up in chest x-rays and tissue samples taken from the miners' lungs. Clinics in Appalachia began seeing miners in their 30s and 40s with advanced disease.

“Each of these cases is a tragedy and represents a failure among all those responsible for preventing this serious disease,” a team of government researchers wrote in a medical journal in 2014.

Although the rule issued Tuesday adopts the limit recommended in 1974, some miner safety advocates fear its benefits will be undermined by weak enforcement. The regulations largely leave it up to mining companies to collect samples that demonstrate their compliance, despite past evidence of guile and fraud. Miners described being forced to place sampling devices in areas with much less dust than where they actually worked, leading to artificially low results.

Williamson said his agency protects miners who report unsafe conditions and works with the Justice Department to prosecute criminal cases if they become aware of sampling fraud.

Industry groups, meanwhile, argued after the rule was proposed that it was too harsh. They asked the agency to reduce sampling requirements and allow more flexibility in approaches to reducing dust levels.

The provisions remained essentially unchanged in the final rule.

Companies that mine materials other than coal have expressed particular concern about the cost of a new program that requires them to provide free periodic medical exams to workers. A similar program already exists in coal mining.

Williamson defended the program as a critical tool for miners to monitor their health and for researchers to monitor disease.

The rule's effectiveness may not be clear for years, as lung disease can take time to develop. Mr. McAteer and Mr. Main said they were dismayed by the recent resurgence of the disease and expressed regret that they had not adopted a silica rule.

“We could have done more,” Main said. “I wish we did more.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *