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Toxic silica dust has driven a sharp rise in severe black lung cases devastating increasingly younger miners throughout central Appalachia.

Now federal mine regulators say they’re cracking down on silica exposure through a new enforcement initiative promoting more rigorous use of already existing regulations.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s new push to protect miners from respirable crystalline silica under a new leader has drawn support from mine safety advocates — and calls to lower the exposure limit for the black lung catalyst for the first time in generations.

Silica dust is composed of small particles that become airborne during drilling, chipping, cutting, grinding and other work activities. Exposure to silica dust has increased with miners cutting into more surrounding rock as coal seams thin.

Dr. Robert Cohen, an environmental and occupational health researcher, testified in 2019 before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections that freshly fractured respirable silica is highly toxic and causes significantly more lung scarring than coal dust.

The MSHA said it will increase oversight and enforcement of known silica hazards at mines with previous citations for exposing miners to silica dust levels over the existing exposure limit of 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

That exposure limit is double what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration permits.

The MSHA is developing a new health standard for silica but is implementing the new enforcement initiative to protect miners in the meantime.

“Simply put, protecting miners from unhealthy levels of silica cannot wait,” Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Chris Williamson said in a statement.

A Mingo County native and former aide to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Williamson was appointed by President Joe Biden in November and confirmed by the Senate in April to lead the country’s mine safety agency.

For metal and nonmetal mines where the operator has not timely abated hazards, the MSHA said it will issue a withdrawal order until the silica overexposure hazard has been abated. For coal mines, the agency said it will encourage changes to dust control and ventilation plans to address known health hazards.

The agency pledged to expand silica sampling at metal and nonmetal mines to ensure inspectors’ samples represent the mines and occupations known to have the highest overexposure risk.

The new enforcement initiative is to include spot inspections at mines with a history of repeated silica overexposures to track and evaluate health and safety conditions.

Federal regulators will focus on sampling during periods of the mining process that pose the highest risk of silica exposure for miners. The MSHA noted that for coal mines, those periods include shaft and slope sinking, extended cuts and developing crosscuts. Metal and nonmetal sampling will focus on miners removing the material overlying deposits of materials to be mined, known as overburden.

Respirable crystalline silica dust particles are at least 100 times smaller than beach sand grains.

But strengthening federal oversight of them, miner advocates say, is a very big deal.

“It is good to know that MSHA is stepping up enforcement of silica exposure as it prepares a new rule for controlling silica dust,” United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts said in a statement.

The initiative also includes reminding miners about their rights to report hazardous health conditions, including any attempt to tamper with the sampling process.

Miners have said mine operators previously discouraged accurate dust sampling.

“When we got dust pumps to wear on our bodies to see how much dust was coming into our lungs, we were told to turn them off,” David Bounds of Fayette County, who worked 21 years in the mines after he was diagnosed with black lung disease in 1982, told the Gazette-Mail last year. “We were told to put them in our dinner bucket. We were told to take them down in the intake airway and leave them until quitting time so they’d get good samples.”

In 1991, the MSHA issued 4,710 citations to more than 500 companies for tampering with respirable coal mine dust samples at nearly 850 coal mines.

During testimony before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections in 2019, Roberts condemned the MSHA for not doing more since then to keep operators from circumventing mandatory dust monitoring. He proposed the agency impose a mandatory fee for service on each operator to conduct all compliance sampling.

Rebecca Shelton, director of policy and organizing at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, said that enforcement efforts like those newly announced by the MSHA will still be important even after a new silica rule is in place.

The center is a Whitesburg, Kentucky-based nonprofit law firm that represents coal miners on black lung and mine safety issues.

“A rule is critical, but it only works as well as it is enforced,” Shelton said in an email.

Rules also only work if they’re implemented.

The MSHA has spent more than two decades in rulemaking without changing its silica exposure limit. The agency has started and restarted rulemaking efforts for silica regulations at least five times, in 1996, 1998, 2003, 2010 and 2014.

The MSHA’s coal mine silica exposure limit of 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air remains double the limit of 50 that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended in 1974.

Meanwhile, advanced black lung cases have escalated throughout the region.

Severe black lung in central Appalachia has reached its highest level since record-keeping began in the 1970s, according to a 2018 report on underground miners working from 1970 to 2017.

Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the report found one in 20 long-tenured underground miners in central Appalachia had coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung, that had advanced to progressive massive fibrosis, a condition the authors noted is “totally disabling.”

“We can think of no other industry or workplace in the United States in which this would be considered acceptable,” the authors wrote.

Willie Dodson, central Appalachian field coordinator for the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, welcomed the MSHA’s new initiative but renewed the group’s call on the agency to reduce the exposure limit to the same level by allowed by OSHA.

“[I]t is urgent that more be done to protect miners from the risk of contracting black lung disease,” Dodson said in a statement. “ … It shouldn’t be so complicated, or take so long, for MSHA to afford miners the same level of protection enjoyed by workers in every other industry.”

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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