Vonda Robinson watches her husband struggle to breathe.
She says he contracted the incurable black lung disease after working in coal mines with little to no safety protocols. She’s been to pulmonologist appointments where doctors showed her what looked like “slivers of glass” inside his lungs.
“I mean all that is [doing], is it’s just going in there and cutting,” Robinson said. “His breathing is down to like 38% and they’re talking about – and he won’t even talk about this right now – a lung transplant.”
With all this in mind, Robinson became the vice president of the National Black Lung Association. Now, from her home in the small town of Nickelsville, Virginia she watches as scores of younger miners contract the same condition.
The incurable and deadly black lung disease has surged in central Appalachia in recent years. Research has tied the epidemic to silica dust, which can burrow deep into miners’ lungs. Miners are increasingly exposed to the dust as mining companies go after thinner and thinner coal seams.
Robinson is pushing the Mine Safety and Health Administration – the federal government’s mine regulator – to tighten up the permissible silica exposure limits, which are twice as high for miners than any other workers in the U.S.
“It feels like they’re just forgotten about you know?” Robinson said.
She says the allowable amount of silica dust needs to be lowered and, if mine operators don’t comply, serious action should be taken.
“I think they really need to come down on the companies more and [be] stricter,” Robinson said.
MSHA has repeatedly started the process to lower the silica threshold since the ‘90s, according to the Department of Labor’s Inspector General office. Yet, somehow, a new safety standard still has never materialized.
“Here we are in an epidemic,” Robinson said. “When are we finally going to get a breakthrough and get something done?”
Just last week, Democratic senators from coal mining states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania cosigned a letter to the agency. They asked why there’s still no regulation, even though they were expecting a change earlier this year in January.
MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson responded, essentially repeating what he told the Ohio Valley Resource last month in an interview.
“It’s absolutely a top priority. But, you know, it’s also a complex health rule, so it’s got to be done correctly, too. We’re going to try to get a proposed rule out as quickly as we can,” he said
Williamson said due to protocols in federal rulemaking, he’s not allowed to give any details on when miners can expect a new rule, or what might be in it. He pointed out that MSHA did create initiatives this year to increase enforcement of existing silica standards and educate miners with black lung about their legal right to move to less-dusty sections of a mine.
At the heart of the University of Kentucky’s Mining and Mineral Resources Building, Professor Steven Schafrik pulls a device out of a messy briefcase that might already be saving miners’ lives. It’s called a personal dust monitor and it looks sort of like a cordless drill battery attached to a long rubber tube. He presses a button to power it up and it begins to gently hum.
The little vibrating air pump goes on a miner’s work belt and the tube clips to a shirt collar. And throughout a day working in a coal mine, it sucks air through the tube like a straw. The machine collects teeny tiny pieces of dust on a tiny paper filter that gets sent off to a special lab.
“We’re really trying to sample the things that would get past your body’s regular defenses so that they get into your lungs,” Schafrik said.
Monitoring these tiny dust particles is important for the health of mine workers and the machines are programmed to make it nearly impossible to falsify results – a serious offense.
“If you do block it…see?” he said, folding the rubber hose to cut off the air flow causing the air pump to emit a sort of low growl as it struggles for air. “The pump gets mad.”
Emily Sarver, mine safety researcher at Virginia Tech University says in preparation for when – or if – a new silica dust rule finally does come out, people like her and Schafrik are working on other new technology that could support it.
They’re still not able to identify silica particles in the air in real time, which she calls the “gold standard.” But she doesn’t think that should hold up MSHA from making a new rule.
“Just because we’re not there on real time silica technology, I don’t think that we either throw up our hands and say, we can’t protect people or that we say we’re just not going to mine underground anymore,” Sarver said. “There are ways to still protect people.”
Sarver has close contact with mining companies that want to be on the cutting edge of safety technology. She believes most companies genuinely want to keep workers safe, but that doesn’t make regulating the industry any easier.
“It’s that classic tale where we all want the same thing, but we can’t quite figure out how to get there,” Sarver said. “I think there are these little pieces that everybody can add: a piece of technology here, a way to make it kind of work over there. We’re all trying to add our own little piece, but it’s a challenge to step back and see what that big puzzle is.”
While the wait for a new silica standard drags on, Vonda Robinson says there’s other things the government can do. Things like passing bills that would make it more efficient for miners diagnosed with black lung to get government-mandated benefits.
Still, her heart is set on seeing a silica standard come to fruition.
“If we get this, that would be great,” Robinson said. “That’d be another milestone that we’ve done. And then we can move on to something else.”