Trump claims he’s fighting for coal miners, but he’s reevaluating the rule protecting them from black lung

Administration targets landmark coal dust rule.

Joe Main, left, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health in the Obama administration, was a strong advocate for getting new rules in place to protect coal miners' health and safety. CREDIT: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Joe Main, left, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health in the Obama administration, was a strong advocate for getting new rules in place to protect coal miners' health and safety. CREDIT: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

The Trump administration intends to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

As part of his mission to drastically cut federal regulations, President Donald Trump appeared to indicate Thursday that he is willing to risk greater harm to workers, including stymieing efforts to reduce black lung in coal communities, to appease his deep-pocketed corporate supporters. This anti-regulation effort stands in stark relief to Trump’s rhetoric — starting in his days on the campaign trail — that continually portrays himself as pro-coal miner.

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Plans to reexamine a mine safety dust rule rule, implemented three years ago, were highlighted in an anti-regulation agenda released Thursday by the Trump administration. At a White House event, Trump touted his administration’s progress in cutting regulations, saying he wants to return the federal government to the level of regulations that existed in 1960.

In August 2014, the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) respirable dust rule went into effect. The long-delayed rule sought to lower miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust, the primary cause of black lung disease, also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. According to statistics, black lung is a disease that has been a contributing factor in the death of more than 76,000 coal miners since 1968.

The Trump administration said MSHA, an agency of the Department of Labor tasked with regulating and enforcing health and safety issues for the nation’s mining sector, will be conducting a “retrospective review” of the landmark final rule, officially known as the “Lowering Miners’ Exposure to the Respirable Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors.”

Ken Ward Jr. reported Thursday in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the Trump administration will be reviewing the safety rules at the same time as a resurgence in lung disease among coal miners, especially in West Virginia and other Appalachian coal states.

During his presidential campaign, Trump reached out to coal miners, telling them that he would bring jobs back to their communities, despite widespread consensus that coal will continue to decline. In return, the miners have put a lot of faith in Trump to fulfill his promise.

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Coal jobs — not worker safety and health protections — have been a major theme of the first 11 months of Trump’s presidency. The administration’s indication that it will review a rule that could prevent thousands of black lung cases shows that Trump’s support for coal miners goes only so far.

For example, in his first month in office, Trump signed legislation to overturn the Stream Protection Rule, which sought to protect waterways near surface coal mining operations like mountaintop-removal mines. The rule helped to make sure people who live in coal communities, including miners, have access to clean water. But Trump framed the rule as a jobs-killer, rather than a regulation that would protect coal miners and their families.

“This rule we’re eliminating it’s a major threat to your jobs, and we’re going to get rid of that threat immediately. We’re going to fight for you like I promised I would in the campaign. And you were very good to me, and I’m going to be even better to you, I promise you that,” Trump said in remarks on February 16, directed at coal miners, as he signed the legislation overturning the rule.

Weakening the coal dust rule also would have direct effects on residents of coal country. The first phase of the MSHA rule, implemented by the Obama administration, restricted allowable coal dust exposure levels for coal miners. The MSHA said 99 percent of mines had complied as of August 2015. In February 2016, another phase took effect, mandating that miners wear dust monitors. The final phase, with another stepdown in the dust exposure level, took effect in August 2016. The coal industry challenged the MSHA rule under, but it was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2016.

The coal industry argued that parts of the dust rule stand “to cripple the industry.” Murray Energy, headed by Robert Murray, a major supporter of Trump, told S&P Global News that the rule, “along with the multitude of other anti-coal regulations promulgated by the Obama administration,” continue to have a “severely negative impact on the United States coal industry.”

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Joseph Main, MSHA chief under President Barack Obama, emphasized that cases of black lung are “widespread and underreported.” Main was a major figure in getting the new dust rule past the finish line, stating in 2014 that the rule “fulfills a longstanding commitment that I made on my first day with MSHA.”

In September, Trump nominated David Zatezalo, a former chief executive of a major coal company with a checkered safety history, to head MSHA. Democratic senators questioned Zatezalo’s record in the industry, citing safety issues at mines he oversaw in West Virginia and Kentucky. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a strong supporter of the coal industry, opposed his nomination. However, the Republican-controlled Senate ultimately confirmed Zatezalo, who was sworn in as MSHA chief on November 30.

Evan Smith, an attorney at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, based in Kentucky, said it’s too early to know whether the Trump administration will make any revisions to MSHA’s coal dust rule. A retrospective review of the rule “isn’t inherently problematic,” he said.

“What we do know though is that the coal industry has been able to meet the lower limits required by the dust rule and that breathing too much coal-mine dust is the sole cause of black lung,” Smith told ThinkProgress. “Weakening the dust rule would not bring back coal jobs and would only mean that miners who are still working are more likely to die of black lung.”

Black lung is common term for several respiratory diseases that share a single cause: breathing in coal mine dust. Over time, black lung disease causes a person’s lungs to become coated in the black particulates that miners inhaled during their time in the mines. Their passageways are marked by dark scars and hard nodules.

As the Trump administration seeks to fulfill the campaign promise to put coal miners back to work, black lung has made a comeback. The disease sickens about one in 14 underground miners with more than 25 years experience who submit to voluntary checkups, according to a recent study, a rate nearly double that from the disease’s lowest point from 1995 to 1999.

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As the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported, 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. Experts speculate that longer work days are contributing to the current surge in black lung. Miners also are taking fewer breaks, giving workers less time to flush their lungs with clean air.

Recent data from a federal-administered coal workers health program shows that the rate of black lung among coal miners with at least 25 years of experience underground in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia is higher than ever before. Based on current data, about one in 20 of these coal miners will now get severe black lung.

A single radiology practice in Pike County, Kentucky — a major coal-producing region — has identified 60 distinct cases of progressive massive fibrosis — the most severe form of black lung disease — over a 20-month period from January 1, 2015 to August 17, 2016. By comparison, a federal program identified 31 unique cases during the entire decade of the 1990s, Smith wrote on his Devil In the Dust blog.

MSHA, under Trump, is requesting public comment on its existing standards and regulations that could be improved or made more effective or less burdensome by accommodating advances in technology, innovative techniques, or less costly methods.

“Stakeholder comments will assist MSHA in evaluating whether modifications of existing standards and regulations can better achieve regulatory objectives and, for the retrospective study, will assist MSHA in evaluating whether the final Dust rule is achieving respirable dust levels to protect miners’ health,” the agency said.