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As black lung spreads, a fight over miner protection

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Christi Turner | May 29, 2014 05:00 AM

The federal government and the nation’s largest coal industry association are in a legal battle over how to best protect miners from the gradual comeback of black lung.

In April, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration issued its final rule to reduce miners’ exposure to coal dust, calling it a “historic step forward” in the campaign to eradicate black lung. But this month, the National Mining Association filed suit against the MSHA, aiming to block implementation of the new rule.

The MSHA rule reduces the amount of coal dust miners can legally be exposed to. The rule marks a win for standards first advanced by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, in 1995, after a reported resurgence in coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, known as black lung. The mining association, however, says the new rule will be too costly for industry. Barring a successful lawsuit, the rule goes into effect Aug. 1.

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A healthy lung versus one infected by black lung. Images courtesy of NIOSH.

When black lung first caught public attention in the 1960s, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, placing strict controls on breathable airborne dust in underground coal mines. Ever since the act’s passage, NIOSH has studied coal-related respiratory disease and worked with the MHSA to carry out an early detection and prevention program. NIOSH says the prevalence of black lung decreased between 1970 and 1990, but has increased markedly again since 1999, although it hasn’t reached the rates of the 1970s.

Black lung is “incurable but entirely preventable,” according to NIOSH. Early detection is crucial, and this month, in the wake of the passage of the new coal dust rule, NIOSH began visiting high-risk areas with a mobile unit that offers free and confidential black lung screening to former and current coal miners. In the West, the mobile unit will pass through parts of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado over the summer.

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The mobile screening unit will offer free and confidential black lung testing to miners and former miners. Image courtesy of NIOSH.

“We’re going to areas where we’re seeing increased disease and miners going through the disease at a very progressive rate,” said Anita Wolfe, a public health analyst at NIOSH. “Now we’re seeing it in younger miners, and miners who haven’t worked underground nearly as long as previous cases.”

The reasons for the increase aren’t all clear, Wolfe says. But an increase in thin-seam coal mining, as well as an increase in miners’ overtime work, are among the suspected causes. The screenings may help shed light on the issue.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reports 664 black lung-related hospitalizations between 2001 and 2011. But those numbers represent only admissions - not the actual prevalence of the disease - cautions Meredith Towle, an epidemiologist who coordinates the department’s Occupational Health and Safety Surveillance program. And since black lung can occur decades after a coal worker is first exposed to coal dust, hospitalization data may reflect exposure from as far back as the 1960s.

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The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tracks hospitalizations related to black lung in the state, although this does not reflect actual prevalence of the disease. Graphic courtesy of CDPHE. Click for larger image.

In its lawsuit, the National Mining Association complains that the cost of the new rule to the coal industry is too high: about $61 million in the first year and about $30 million on an annual basis thereafter. The association also contends that new requirements for “continuous personal dust monitors” will not be widely available until after the Aug. 1 implementation date, making it impossible for companies to enact the mandated changes on time. One company asked whether financial assistance would be available to cover the estimated $750,000 cost of upgrading its safety equipment; the MHSA said no.

By contrast, the federal government has paid more than $45 billion in black lung compensation since 1970. Between 1995, when NIOSH first recommended tightening the dust limits, and 2010, black lung killed 13,675 miners. More than 76,000 miners have died from black lung since 1968.

The lawsuit now sits with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where nearly a dozen coal company petitions against the rule will be reviewed. The outcome of the case, one analyst said, will depend on the strength of the science behind the long-awaited rule.

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.

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