FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 10, 2023
BECKLEY, W.Va. — During a public hearing held today in Beckley, West Virginia, a number of coal miners and advocates spoke out in support of strengthened silica dust exposure standards proposed by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in response to an epidemic of new black lung cases among coal miners while highlighting areas where the proposed rule could be improved.
“Ten or 20 years from now, we may look back at this process as the moment that we curbed this epidemic,” said Willie Dodson, Central Appalachian Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “If MSHA gets this right, fewer miners will have to give up their health due to this disease. Fewer papaws will have to explain to their babies that they don’t feel well enough to play with them in the yard. … If we get this wrong, we’ll see no change in the rate of miners contracting black lung.”
There were common areas of concern shared by those advocating to strengthen the rule before it is finalized:
- The rule’s dependence on sampling conducted by coal operators who have a long, documented history of manipulating coal dust samples
- A provision allowing miners to continue working with respirators when silica dust levels exceed the new safety threshold rather than pulling miners out and shutting sections down until operators can improve engineering and design to create safe levels of exposure
- Lack of specified monetary fines for coal operators who fail to comply with the new standards
- Lack of clarity about when sampling is required — especially during portions of the mining process where little coal is produced but high silica dust levels could be expected
“A rule with no penalties is no rule at all,” said Sam Petsonk, a lawyer who represents miners with black lung. “The only thing companies understand is money. They don’t understand the value of the blood and lives of miners. If they did, they would have enforced these laws willingly.”
“We need to go to the source on this,” said Terry Lilly, a miner with black lung disease. “I’m at 40% of my lung capacity. I’ve got 30 years of coal mining and I know the tricks and how they operate. I’m as guilty as any for hiding dust samples. Cheating the samples is what we need to stop. If we could stop that, we could save lives. … It’s too late for me. But I’d like these young people to be protected. One of these days they’ll be like me and can’t walk across the parking lot.”
“Any rule needs to be enforced by MSHA and not by the coal companies,” said Vonda Robinson, Vice President of the National Black Lung Association. “We’ve seen what happens when the companies are in charge: Guys in their 30s with small children are getting black lung. I’ve watched my husband go from working in the mines to being totally disabled with black lung.”
“Respirators are a band-aid,” said Leonard Go, a University of Illinois pulmonologist. “In an ideal setting, where no miner has a beard, no miner has to do hard labor, and communication is not needed, respirators may be effective. In the real world respirators provide a false sense of security.”
“We need to keep our younger generations safe, but regulations won’t be enough until there is honesty,” said John Robinson, a miner diagnosed with black lung disease in 2014. “If you look at the production numbers when inspectors visit and when they don’t you can tell when they are gaming the system. Operators don’t want to be over their limit and they know how to keep miners from speaking out. … We old timers have already paid the price. We’re going to die from this disease, but we still have younger guys to protect, like my baby brother, who still works in the mines.”
“My grandfather died of black lung, and I don’t want my grandkids to see me in that condition,” said James McDonnell, who has worked as a surface miner for 20 years. “It’s different than working underground. … Men on the ground on a surface mine don’t get the testing that should be done. There’s a lot of guys that are out there in the surface mine industry who are getting high levels of exposure.”
“When I was in there, they told us that if we get bad samples they will shut the mine down,” said Gary Hairston, President of the National Black Lung Association. “I grew up in a coal camp, I know everything about coal mining, I’ve been around it my whole life. And I want to see something done about younger coal miners.”
Originally, only two public hearings were scheduled — one in Arlington, Virginia, and one in Denver, Colorado. The Beckley hearing was added only after miners and advocates asked for a hearing in Central Appalachia, the epicenter of the current black lung epidemic.
Appalachian coal miners are extracting ever smaller seams of coal, necessitating the blasting and cutting of large amounts of non-coal rock. This produces high levels of respirable silica, which miners breathe while on the job. Black lung occurs when coal and silica particles are inhaled into the lungs, scarring the tissue andforming fibrotic masses, severely impacting cardio and pulmonary functioning. Black lung disease is progressive and fatal. It is occurring at higher rates, and affecting miners more severely and at younger ages than in previous generations.
The current silica rule for coal miners has not been updated since 1985. In the time period since then, mining methods have changed as most larger and more accessible Appalachian coal seams have been depleted. In order to access the remaining coal seams, miners must cut through large amounts of sandstone and other rock. This exposes miners to high concentrations of silica dust that is 20 times more toxic than coal dust and causes the most severe forms of black lung even after fewer years of exposure. Health experts and government bodies have developed scientific evidence and repeatedly concluded that this silica dust exposure is a major cause of the current black lung epidemic and that the outdated MSHA silica standard is woefully ineffective at protecting miners from this threat. Now, in Central Appalachia, one in five tenured miners has black lung disease and one in 20 has the most severe and totally disabling form of black lung.
Previously, MSHA’s silica rule set a permissible exposure limit — or the amount a coal miner could be exposed to during an eight hour shift — of up to 100 micrograms of the toxin per cubic meter. But, as noted in the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center 2021 petition submitted to MSHA requesting a new silica standard, the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General found this level to be out of date. MSHA’s new draft standard is significantly stronger than the existing rule, setting a permissible exposure limit of 50 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter.