Whitesburg KY

Black lung scourge must be addressed

Word that the number of new black lung diagnoses has doubled in the last decade underscores the need for the Obama administration to move quickly on new, more stringent federal mine safety regulations limiting the amount of breathable coal dust found in the nation’s coal mines.

An investigation by National Public Radio, the Center for Public Integrity and the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette found that systems in place to protect coal miners have failed because of a number of problems ranging from lax enforcement to operators who cheat on dust tests to lawmakers who won’t toughen inadequate 43-year-old dust standards.

While the numbers are shocking, it should come as no surprise that the regulations currently in place aren’t protecting miners despite the great hope that the disease could be wiped out when the first dust standards were put in place in 1969.

The disease, officially known as “coal worker’s pneumoconiosis,” is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. It causes shortness of breath, chronic cough, and heavy mucus and, in the most severe cases, death.

The Courier-Journal reported last month that black lung is striking not only underground miners in Kentucky but that 5.7 percent of surface miners tested had the disease.

A report by The Courier-Journal in 1998 found widespread fraud among coal operators who submitted false air samples to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

That 1998 series of stories resulted in mine operators being indicted for fraud and other actions designed to fix the problems.

Then-MSHA director J. Davitt McAteer proposed new, tougher restrictions in a renewed effort to end black lung, but Mr. McAteer and the United Mine Workers Association couldn’t agree to his plan because the union didn’t think it was strong enough.

When George W. Bush came into office and appointed former mine operator Dave Lauriski to replace Mr. McAteer, Mr. McAteer’s proposal was swept aside and replaced by a weaker plan by Mr. Lauriski that failed to gain approval by Elaine Chao’s Department of Labor.

Now, MSHA director Joseph Main, who was safety director for the UMWA when it opposed Mr. McAteer’s plan as too weak, is pressing for tougher regulations that include cutting by half the allowable mine dust that leads to this horrible, fatal disease that kills about 1,500 miners or former miners each year.

The rule change would also alter the way air samples are collected in an effort to do away with the widespread fraud documented by this newspaper more than a decade ago.

It seems like a no-brainer. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended in 1995 that MSHA reduce the amount of allowable coal dust from 2 milligrams per cubic meter to one milligram.

Mr. Main’s proposed regulation, which does just that, is currently awaiting approval by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. If she signs it, the regulation then goes to the Office of Management and Budget for final approval.

Unfortunately, Kentucky miners can’t expect help from the state’s U.S. senators on this matter.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who is married to Ms. Chao) has always seemed more interested in protecting coal-mining profits than protecting coal miners’ health. And Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, publicly questioned the need for tougher coal dust standards at a Senate committee meeting more than a year ago.

“Every regulation doesn’t save lives,” said, Paul, who professes to be a “pro-life” politician. “There is a point or a balancing act between when a regulation becomes burdensome and our energy production is stifled. We have to assess the cost.”

Ms. Solis needs to act quickly to protect coal miners.

Putting an end to this scourge and saving 1,500 lives a year is not too burdensome in a country that is supposed to value life.

— The Courier-Journal, Louisville

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