As the rate of black lung increases, particularly around central Appalachia, congressional leaders were urged to act on Thursday.
In a hearing titled “What is MSHA [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] doing to protect miners from the resurgence of black lung disease?,” members of the House Committee on Education and Labor’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections heard from leaders, including Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America and Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David Zatezalo.
“This much is clear,” said Committee Chair Alma Adams, D-N.C. “Black lung is back at epidemic levels.”
The disease, also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is caused by inhaling coal and silica dust both at underground and surface mines. The disease is progressive and can be fatal. Despite a number of federal regulations starting in 1969, the disease has only increased in the past two decades; 78,000 miners have died of it since 1977, Adams said.
And though MSHA implemented a rule limiting coal dust exposure in 2014, the rule didn’t address silica — which is much more dangerous than coal dust.
We’ve been here before, Roberts said in his opening testimony. He urged a quicker response, including an exposure limit for silica and an emergency standard from Congress.
“We do not lack information. What we lack today is the same thing we lacked all the other times I came to speak to Congress regarding the dangers of black lung: We lack the will to act,” he said.
But an emergency standard is “uncalled for,” Zatezalo said.
Mark Takano, D-Calif., repeatedly asked Zatezalo about the pace at which MSHA is responding to the disease. Last year, he said, Zatezalo said he was waiting on a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The report, called ”Monitoring and Sampling Approaches to Assess Underground Coal Mine Dust Exposures,” was released last June and prescribed different ways to protect coal miners from black lung disease.
“We are working on the National Academies of Sciences report along with NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] and we’ve worked tirelessly on it. Since we began we’ve increased our sampling, we have lowered the average exposure and we continue to do that every day,” Zatezalo said in response.
Adams noted that Zatezalo has waffled on whether black lung is largely caused by silica.
“I think PMF [progressive massive fibrosis] problems are largely contributed to by quartz, of which silica is a component. Silica is a component of quartz; what we actually measure is quartz,” Zatezalo said in response, noting several times that he was simply following the law.
Last year, an investigation from National Public Radio and Frontline found thousands of cases in which miners were exposed to coal and silica dust at rates that surpassed the federal government’s count.
But other witnesses urged swifter action.
“I think that we’d be doing a huge disservice to wait until we have another generation of miners with this disease to get data from the new rules,” said Robert Cohen, clinical professor in environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois School of Public Health.
Gary Hairston, vice president of the Fayette County Black Lung Association, worked as an underground coal miner in West Virginia for almost 28 years. He first realized he might have black lung when he was outside working and it started to rain. After he rushed inside, he couldn’t breathe.
“Being disabled at such a young age nearly broke my spirit. I couldn’t provide for my family. I couldn’t play ball with my grandkids. And my wife had to go out and work to help support us,” he testified, wiping away tears.
Bobby Scott, D-Va., asked Hairston why a coal miner wouldn’t get an X-ray earlier on.
“They’re scared of getting fired,” he said.