CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) New data is raising increased concerns about the health of those working in underground coal mines. Right now, there is important conversation at the federal level centering around a rule change that could slow down the spike in cases of severe lung disease.

Coal mining is a family tradition for many people in Appalachia. The hours spent working in darkness beneath the earth’s surface build stories that generations can relate to as they do what it takes to earn a living. But new research shows history repeating itself as cases of black lung surge.

The conversation that once centered largely around coal dust now puts silica center stage.

“A lot of the coal mines, seams have been largely mined out over the last 100 plus years, now miners are using stronger equipment to get deeper and deeper into the mines and that is kicking up a lot of rock dust, quartz dust which is silica and that is 20 times more toxic than a normal coal dust,” explained Quenton King, Federal Legislative Specialist, Appalachian Voices.

New research on the federal level shows a dramatic increase in cases of lung disease specifically in Central Appalachia and in a younger demographic of miners. When compared with miners in other parts of the country the spike in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky has been stunning.

“They are being exposed to more silica, longer than previous generations of miners,” King said. “So, we are seeing people in their 30s and 40s getting it. In the past it would be 50’s, 60’s, 70’s.”

Erin Bates, Communications Director at the United Mine Workers of America noted a similar trend.

“These miners, young miners are now contracting pneumoconiosis or black lung because of the silica dust exposure,” she said.

In recent years, miners and their families along with researchers, lawmakers, doctors and others, have pushed for change in the form of stronger silica regulation. Now it seems that change is on the horizon. The Mine Safety and Health Administration hosted a series of public hearings, including one recently in Raleigh County, getting feedback about a proposal that would cut the permissable exposure limit for silica dust in half.

“Mining is the only industry where you can be exposed to the levels of silica dust that they are exposed to,” King said. “Virtually every other occupation you are limited to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Miners are allowed to be exposed to 100 micrograms.”

Advocates say, to be effective, that rule change must come with strict monitoring and enforcement.

“You can’t just set a standard out there and expect these mine operators to follow suit and follow the guidelines, unless MSHA has the ability to come in and do regular inspections and make sure that this standard is in place,” Bates said.

King said reporting is also a concern.

“It is an over reliance on coal companies to report their own data, to sample their own data. We are concerned that after their first baseline sample that you might not have to sample again,” he said.

While the change to the rule limiting silica exposure would be a victory for miners and their allies some are urging MSHA to make sure they go far enough. Advocates say MSHA should be considering including fines or other measures for non-compliance. They are also urging the agency to take another look at some of the details within the language of the proposal.

“It is heavy reliant on respirators. It is hard to wear respirators when you are deep in the mines. It is hard to wear it probably when you are at a facility all day above ground. But when it is hot, it is dark, it is cramped, you are working with heavy machinery that can kill you, your collegues or your friends. Having to wear a respirator the whole time is very dangerous,” King said.

For some the change comes too late because their lungs already too damaged. Illness has left them unable to work or enjoy the life they dreamed about. Now that change is within reach those pushing for tougher silica restrictions are hoping MSHA will move fast.

“This is a life-or-death situation and without this rule, more and more miners are going to be contracting this fatal disease,” Bates said.

MSHA hosted three total public hearings about the proposed rule change. One in Arlington, VA one in Beckley, WV and one in Denver, CO. If you missed the hearings you can still make sure your voice is heard. The window for the public to comment has been extended to the end of the day on September 11, 2023. You can click here to comment.

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