Black Lung Has Been On The Rise For Years, But A Long-Delayed Rule Might Finally Stop It

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rob Carr

United Mine Workers member Rich Fuller listens to speakers at a rally in Charleston, W.Va.

United Mine Workers member Rich Fuller listens to speakers at a rally in Charleston, W.Va.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bob Bird

As cases of black lung surge in coal country, the Obama administration may finally be moving forward with a long-delayed rule to protect coal miners from the deadly disease. On Thursday, a notice posted on the administration’s Office of Management and Budget website said a final version of the rule was sent to the White House on Wednesday.

The new rule, first proposed in October 2010, aims to reduce miners’ exposure to coal dust. The dust causes the irreversible and potentially fatal black lung disease, which has been on the rise in recent years. The rule would seek to tighten allowable levels of coal dust exposure, as well as require continuous personal dust monitors for miners and change how companies monitor dust exposure.

“Black lung has been the underlying or contributing cause of death of more than 76,000 miners since 1968, according to figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health” and, notes the Lexington Herald-Leader, “that total does not include deaths from silicosis, which is caused by breathing dust from rocks such as sandstone.”

While black lung disease declined steadily for several decades, it mysteriously rebounded in recent years. As Ken Ward writes in the Charleston Gazette, “researchers have warned of a doubling of black lung rates since 1997, and of an alarming incidence of the disease among younger miners, whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law’s dust limits.”

In May, a scientific paper authored by leading black lung doctors “outlined the growing evidence that black lung is on the rise among Appalachian coal miners and that dust exposure is linked to a broad variety of respiratory problems, including lung cancer and emphysema.”

Among the causes cited for the upswing in the diseases is the fact that miners are working longer shifts and increasingly mining thinner coal seams in Central Appalachia, which requires cutting through more rock. Further, dust-control rules are inadequate and coal companies are failing to comply with them.

A 2012 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR drew sobering conclusions.

The disease’s resurgence represents a failure to deliver on a 40-year-old pledge to miners in which few are blameless … The system for monitoring dust levels is tailor-made for cheating, and mining companies haven’t been shy about doing so. Meanwhile, regulators often have neglected to enforce even these porous rules. Again and again, attempts at reform have failed.

In an attempt to address the return of black lung, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed the stricter rule nearly three years ago. Of the three year delay that followed, Ward writes, “It was held up in part by Republicans in Congress who insisted on a U.S. Government Accountability Office audit, but also delayed repeatedly by MSHA and the Labor Department.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), a longtime proponent of the rules, wrote the President two weeks ago, urging him to address the delay. “No miner should have to face the destructive effects of black lung. This heart wrenching disease has hurt too many miners, their families, and communities,” Rockefeller wrote. “We must act now before we lose more West Virginia coal miners to this disease.” Rockefeller also recently introduced the Black Lung Health Improvements Act of 2013, the third bill in a series of legislation aimed at protecting miners’ health and safety.

Not every member of Congress is celebrating the long-overdue movement, however. Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), questioned whether the rule was necessary on Thursday, wondering if the added burden on coal companies would outweigh the benefits to coal miners. “Let’s make sure we’re not so overzealous that we put these people out of work,” Barr said.