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Appalachian Voices sees a missed opportunity with new rule to protect miners from black lung disease

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April 17, 2024

Dan Radmacher, [email protected], (540) 798-6683
Quenton King, [email protected], (304) 579-7366

NORTON, Va. — Yesterday the Biden administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration announced that it finalized a rule to protect miners from respirable silica — a significant driver of the resurgence of black lung disease in Central Appalachia. The rule maintains the provision in the draft rule that creates a separate, enforceable silica standard and cuts the amount of silica dust a miner can be exposed to during an eight-hour shift by half, from 100 micrograms per cubic meter to 50, granting miners the same silica exposure limit as workers in all other industries. However, there are significant deficiencies in the final rule.

MSHA released a draft of the rule last summer after six senators, Congressman Bobby Scott, and 28 groups sent letters urging its release amid bureaucratic delays. Appalachian Voices and other advocates provided testimony at virtual and in-person hearings and submitted written recommendations to improve the rule. More than 5,000 supporters signed a petition to support strengthening the rule.

Unfortunately, many of those recommendations were ignored. Concerns remaining in the final rule include:

  • It does not contain a clear commitment to citations or penalties for operators who violate the exposure limit.
  • When silica levels are known to be above the exposure limit, it allows coal miners to still work in coal production with respirators while corrective actions are taking place.
  • It relies heavily on industry inspections and sampling, with periodic inspections and sampling by MSHA.

MSHA did make some noticeable improvements to the draft rule, including:

  • Requiring that all mine operators obtain samples under the actionable limit of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air in order to eliminate quarterly sampling requirements though the proposed version of the rule allowed operators to provide “objective data” to avoid this requirement
  • Requiring mine operators to conduct periodic evaluations whenever there is a change in production, processes, installation and maintenance of engineering controls, installation and maintenance of equipment, administrative controls or geological conditions. If a mine operator determines that exposures to respirable silica may have increased, the mine operator shall be required to perform additional sampling
  • Requiring that coal operators notify MSHA if a single sample is above the exposure limit for respirable silica
  • Imposing stronger record keeping requirements.

“It’s good that MSHA is reducing allowable exposure to respirable silica, and this win is the result of years of advocacy from miners and their families, including those in the Black Lung Association and the United Mine Workers of America,” said Willie Dodson, Central Appalachian Field Coordinator. “But without strong enforcement mechanisms, and without any prohibition against miners being forced to work in excessive dust, I’m not sure that this will actually reduce levels of black lung. This rule gives MSHA too much discretion where there should be automatic enforcement actions. But I am heartened in knowing that there is a strong grassroots movement of miners and people who stand with them, and this movement will continue to push MSHA to crack down on dangerous mines and protect miners.”

“We appreciate the administration finally taking action on this issue that has long been ignored, but remain concerned about enforcement,” said Quenton King, Federal Legislative Specialist. “We also thank the members of Congress that urged the administration to develop and issue the rule, including Congressman Bobby Scott, and Sens. Manchin, Warner, Kaine, Casey, Brown and Fetterman. This rule has the potential to prevent thousands of miners in coal communities from getting black lung disease, if operators and MSHA take it seriously.”

Now that the rule is final, MSHA must focus on ensuring coal companies implement these worker protections. Similar to the proposed rule last year, the final rule still relies heavily on coal companies to self-sample and comply. MSHA must step up its inspection and enforcement efforts in order to ensure coal miners are adequately protected. MSHA has requested additional funding in recent years to hire inspectors, but Congress continues to underfund the agency. In the current fiscal year, MSHA received $50 million less than it requested. Additionally, Rep. Scott Perry attempted to push through an amendment on the FY 2024 appropriations bill to block MSHA from implementing the new silica rule.

“Now that the House of Representatives has selected its new Appropriations Committee chair and Congress has begun work in earnest on the Fiscal Year 2025 appropriations bills, members of Congress must ensure this year’s funding package meets MSHA’s request of $407 million, and reject any efforts to block MSHA from implementing the new protections for coal miners.” said King.

The post Appalachian Voices sees a missed opportunity with new rule to protect miners from black lung disease appeared first on Appalachian Voices.

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