This week, the White House approved a long-awaited rule that limits how much coal dust miners can be exposed to, increasing the workers’ protection against this dangerous byproduct of coal mining.
The rule, approved Monday by the Office of Management and Budget, is expected to lower the the current limit on coal dust exposure, which has been in place since 1972. The updated limit, which was originally proposed in 2010, will be phased in over a period of two years. U.S. officials are planning to announce the new rule in Morgantown, West Virginia on Wednesday.
The new limit aims to protect coal miners from black lung disease, which is caused by exposure to the dust and can be fatal. Cases of black lung disease have been on the rise in recent years — an investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found that between 1995 and 2004, more than 10,000 miners died from black lung disease. As the Charleston Gazette reported last year, researchers have found that black lung rates among mine workers have doubled since 1997, with an “alarming incidence” of rates of the disease among younger miners in their 40s.
“The sum of the evidence really shows this is a worsening problem, instead of a problem that’s getting better,” Robert Cohen, a medical professor at John Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in Chicago told the Gazette. “When you put it all together, it underscores the need to do something — better regulations, more stringent regulations, and better enforcement.”
The NPR and CPI study found that along with the increase in black lung cases, coal miners in the U.S. have experienced an increase in work hours in the last few decades. The investigation found that an average workweek for a coal miner in the U.S. grew 11 hours longer over the last 30 years, an increase that’s led to approximately 600 more hours of coal dust exposure every year. NPR also spoke with a 47-year-old miner who suffered from the disease, which he was diagnosed with at age 40.
“Now it feels like I’ve got a heavy wet sack on each lung,” Mark McCowan, a coal miner who lives in Virginia, told NPR. “Breathing has become a conscious effort. … It seems like I give up a little bit of my world each day, that it gets smaller and smaller.”
The Government Accountability Office released a report in 2012 that found that the just-approved limit on coal dust exposure was supported by science and would effectively reduce miners’ risk of getting black lung and other diseases (though it would not eliminate it altogether). This month, the GAO released another study that found the same thing. The National Mining Association and several coal companies, however, have spoken out against stricter limits on coal dust exposure, saying the increase in black lung disease was a result of miners breathing ground-up rock from the mines.
The rule’s approval comes just weeks after Health and Human Services announced cuts in state funding that will impact West Virginia’s eight black lung community clinics, changes that have caused West Virginia clinic workers to worry that they may need to cut their hours or staff. It also comes just days after coal company Murray Energy cut off non-unionized former coal miners from their health benefits.