Health

The Mine Safety and Health Administration will host a public meeting Thursday as it considers action on regulating respirable silica, one of the major contributors to Appalachia’s skyrocketing rates of black lung disease. 

MSHA issued a request for information in response to calls for increased regulation after a 2018 investigation from NPR and PBS Frontline. That investigation found that the agency had failed to adequately protect miners despite knowing that silica, or quartz dust, was contributing to an  epidemic of black lung. Silica dust is produced from cutting into layers of rock surrounding coal seams. At least 10 percent of coal miners with 25 or more years of underground work experience suffer from the disease, a sharp increase from the 1990s. 

A 2014 rule strengthened controls on mine dust overall, but did not address silica specifically. The agency’s meeting and request might signal interest in further regulation. However, some critics say it is too little, too late. Former MSHA regulator Celeste Monforton has spoken out against MSHA’s lack of action on silica exposure and said she sees little progress now. 

“They’re not suggesting in any way that they’re planning to do a regulation. They don’t even mention that in this request for information,” Monforton said of MSHA. “All MSHA is doing is saying, ‘We are aware of these cases, there’s a suggestion that it’s related to silica, so tell us what you think about this, let us know if you have any ideas.’”

MSHA said in its announcement of the hearing that it would also consider the viability of personal protective equipment such as air-flow helmets to keep silica below existing standards. That stance is in keeping with mining industry groups’ preferred method of control. Such an approach would place greater responsibility for safety on workers themselves. Some public health experts say personal protective equipment is most effective in combination with rigorous environmental controls. 

Assistant Secretary of Labor David Zatezelo leads MSHA in the Trump administration. A former coal company executive, Zatezelo has been reluctant to agree with the growing scientific consensus on silica’s ongoing role in the black lung epidemic. He told a Congressional panel in June that he wanted to wait to see what effects the 2014 coal dust rule would have on limiting exposure to silica. 

“Due to the decades-long latency period between exposure and disease manifestation, a medically valid study cannot be completed in the near term,” Zatezelo said. “But MSHA anticipates the study will confirm that dramatic increases in sampling and compliance translate into reduced black lung incidence going forward.”

At that hearing, the administrator said MSHA would be reluctant to act unless it was to implement personal protective equipment. 

Lawmakers are facing increased pressure to address the epidemic. Over the summer, dozens of disabled coal miners made the day-long trip from central Appalachia to Washington, D.C., to urge lawmakers to support a black lung benefits fund and strengthen regulatory controls for current miners.

House Education and Labor committee chair Rep. Bobby Scott said in a statement in June that, “Today’s silica standards are not sufficient to protect miners,” and if MSHA did not act, “Congress has no choice but to take action on behalf of workers and their families.”

Monforton, the former MSHA official, said MSHA’s new request for information is an effort to thread the needle by appearing to take some action without committing to changing regulations in a meaningful way. 

“MSHA would be in an awkward position to not take some step,” Monforton said. “I wouldn’t even call it a regulatory step, but because it’s technically listed on the regulatory agenda, the agency can describe it as a regulatory step.”

The hearing is scheduled to last for eight hours and will take place at MSHA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. 

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.