At the behest of coal companies, the Trump administration is seeking to weaken coal mining regulations that researchers have said are critical to reversing the trend of a surge in cases of black lung disease, according to ThinkProgress.
Recent studies have shown that the pulmonary disease has made a stark comeback after hitting a low in the 1990s, indicating more miners are at risk — particularly in the central Appalachian region — at a time President Donald Trump is looking to lessen the financial burden on coal companies.
More than 10 percent of America’s coal miners with 25 or more years of experience have black lung disease, also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. In central Appalachia — areas of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee — it’s even higher. More than 20 percent of coal workers in the area with the same amount of tenure have been diagnosed with the disease, according to a new study by experts at the federal government’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Black lung is a common term for several respiratory diseases that share a single cause: breathing in coal mine dust. Over time, black lung disease causes a person’s lungs to become coated in the black particulates that miners inhaled during their time in the mines. Their passageways are marked by dark scars and hard nodules.
The most severe form of the disease — progressive massive fibrosis — can now be found in five percent of veteran mine workers in the central Appalachian region, the study found.
This is the highest rate ever recorded, ThinkProgress noted.
Authors of the study, “Continued Increase in Prevalence of Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis in the United States, 1970-2017”, were unanimous in their conclusion:
“We can think of no other industry or workplace in the United States in which this would be considered acceptable,” the researchers concluded.
Still, Trump is determined to bring the coal industry back to life, and in the process weaken rules meant to protect America’s miners so as to create a “less burdensome” environment for coal companies.
On April 4, in response to industry complaints about coal dust rules imposed by the Obama administration, Trump’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) submitted a draft request for information on the agency’s regulation to protect coal miners from black lung disease. This was part of a first step toward diminishing protections for coal workers.
The Coal Mine Dust Rule was published in August 2014 and was phased in over the subsequent two years. It included a reduction in the allowable concentration of respirable coal dust to which miners could be exposed from 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter of air to 1.5 milligrams. It marked the first time in 45 years that federal officials have updated labor rules to prevent black lung disease.
The coal industry staunchly opposes updating coal dust rules, as evidenced by Murray Energy’s claim that MSHA “clearly seeks to destroy the coal industry and the thousands of jobs that it provides.”
Murray Energy and the National Mining Association each filed lawsuits against MSHA.
However, the researchers are unwavering in their position: the Obama administration rules must stand.
In their study released this week, the NIOSH researchers emphasized that the 2014 standards successfully closed several loopholes that were allowing miners to be exposed to coal mine dust. But they also emphasized that they are not aware of any evidence of a decline in black lung disease that would justify the Trump administration relaxing the 2014 standards.
“Enhancement and diligent enforcement of the 2014 standards remains critical for reversing these trends,” the researchers said.