Coal Dust Protections Should Be Strengthened, Scientists Say (1)

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By Stephen Lee

Mine operators should go above and beyond current regulations if they want to stave off recent spikes in black lung disease, a panel of scientists said June 28.

The current anti-black-lung strategy, which consists mostly of limiting exposures to total mass concentrations of dust, seemed to protect miners well until the late 1990s, but sharp increases in disease rates suggests that that approach alone might no longer be enough, said the report by the National Academy of Sciences, an organization of leading researchers that advises the government.

Mine operators should start using advanced methods and tools for dust sampling and monitoring, the report said.

“We should not simply wait to see if our conventional approaches will effectively reduce the new disease rates,” Emily Sarver, associate professor of mining and minerals engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the paper’s co-authors, told Bloomberg Environment. “We believe that we need to augment the approach to go beyond compliance.”

The new report from the National Academy of Sciences could land with a thud for the Trump administration. The White House doesn’t want public attention focused on coal mining’s health risks, because that could trigger cries for tougher regulation even among the president’s base.

Nor is the administration eager for any reminders of the abrupt—and still largely unexplained—cancellation of a similar National Academy study on the health effects of surface coal mining last August.

In the early 1970s, as many as 35 percent of all miners with at least 25 years of experience were being diagnosed with black lung disease, but by 2000 that number had fallen to 5 percent. Since then, the rate has jumped back up, to roughly 8 percent in 2012.

A Regulatory Fix?

The research team didn’t comment on the need for more government regulation.

David Michaels, an epidemiologist and former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama, said the paper “underscores the need for a stronger silica standard for underground mining.”

Under President Donald Trump, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has said it wants to take another look at a 2014 Obama-era mining rule that lowers how much coal dust is allowed to be floating in the air. In December 2017, the agency said it wanted to make the rule “more effective or less burdensome” by allowing for new technologies or less costly methods.

But Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, scoffed at that notion, telling Bloomberg Environment that “no credible expert thinks we should weaken the coal dust standard.”

“The only question is, how much more should it be strengthened?” Michaels said. “This report should contribute to a strengthening standard.”

Michaels also was struck by the finding that between 99.4 and 99.8 percent of the air samples taken in coal mines between 2016 and 2017 complied with the lower limits set forth in the Obama rule. Although some mining companies have said compliance would be difficult, those figures suggest otherwise, in Michaels’ view.

“If there’s greater than 99 percent compliance, it’s difficult to call it burdensome,” he said.

MSHA chief David Zatezalo told Bloomberg Environment in January that he was “not proposing to weaken” the 2014 dust rule.

Agency, Industry Respond

Agency spokeswoman Amy Louviere told Bloomberg Environment that MSHA “will be reviewing the report thoroughly before making any public comment.”

Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the trade group is “in absolute agreement that more must be done to significantly enhance health protection for our nation’s coal miners.”

“Operators have never suggested that simply by lowering the respirable dust standard, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, and other problems would be reduced or eliminated, as has been suggested by MSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,” Burke told Bloomberg Environment.

The industry supports measures such as mandatory X-ray surveillance for all active underground and surface coal miners as well as non-traditional controls including airstream anti-dust helmets, Burke said.

“Exposure levels, as measured by compliance sampling, are only one part of maintaining miner health,” Burke said. “A holistic approach to protect miner health extends far beyond sampling.”

‘More Work Needs to Be Done’

The researchers who worked on the report said they don’t know precisely what’s driving the recent spike in black lung disease.

One possible explanation is that the mining industry has changed in recent years.

“There’s emerging information suggesting that changes in mining techniques, changes in the width of coal seams, more overburden being mined, are probably important,” Cecile Rose, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado-Denver and one of the paper’s co-authors, told Bloomberg Environment. “A great deal more work needs to be done to understand the risk factors, so that targeted prevention can be done.”

“We’ve witnessed a really alarming increase in the rate of disease that has heretofore not been conclusively explained,” Sarver said. “It is somewhat surprising just how little we know about the dust.”

Echoes of the Past

The report’s issuance calls to mind the National Academy of Sciences study of how surface coal mining was affecting the health of people who lived nearby. The Interior Department suddenly stopped that study in August 2017.

At the time, Interior said it was temporarily stopping the study as part of its review of all grants costing more than $100,000, “largely as a result of the department’s changing budget situation.”

But the surface coal study seems to have been the only one that was ended, suggesting it was targeted. Subsequent reports showed that Katharine MacGregor, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, met with representatives from some of the nation’s biggest coal companies, then pushed for the study’s cancellation.

The June 28 report was authorized by Congress as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, meaning the White House couldn’t have killed it even if it had wanted to.

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