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Coal miners hailing rule to slow rise of black lung

By Leah Willingham and Matthew Daly

The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va.>> A half-century ago, the nation’s top health experts urged the federal agency in charge of mine safety to adopt strict rules protecting miners from poisonous rock dust.

The inaction since — fueled by denials and lobbying from coal and other industries — has contributed to the premature deaths of thousands of miners from pneumoconiosis, more commonly known as “black lung.” The problem has only grown in recent years as miners dig through more layers of rock to get to less accessible coal, generating deadly silica dust in the process.

One former regulator called the lack of protection from silica-related illnesses “stunning” and one of the most “catastrophic” occupational health failures in U.S. history.

Now, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has proposed a rule that would cut the current limit for silica exposure by half — a major victory for safety advocates. But there is skepticism and concern about the government following through after years of broken promises and delays.

James Bounds, a retired coal miner from Oak Hill, W.Va., said nothing can be done to reverse the debilitating illness he was diagnosed with at 37 in 1984. But he doesn’t want others to suffer the same fate.

“It’s not going to help me — I’m through mining,” said Bounds, 75, who now uses supplemental oxygen to breathe. “But we don’t want these young kids breathing like we do.”

The rule, published in the Federal Register this month, cuts the permissible exposure limit for silica dust from 100 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for an eight-hour shift in coal, metal and nonmetal mines such as sand and gravel.

The proposal is in line with exposure levels imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on construction and other non-mining industries. And it’s the standard the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending as far back as 1974.

Silicosis is an occupational pneumoconiosis caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust present in minerals like sandstone. The U.S. Department of Labor began studying silica and its impact on workers’ health in the 1930s, but the focus on stopping exposure in the workplace largely bypassed coal miners.

Instead, regulations centered on coal dust, a separate hazard created by crushing or pulverizing coal rock that also contributes to black lung.

 

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