Study Shows Surface Coal Miners Are Exposed To Toxic Dust That Causes Black Lung Tuesday, Dec 10 2019 

Appalachian surface coal miners are consistently overexposed to toxic silica dust, according to new research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and surface mine dust contains more silica than does dust in underground coal mines. 

The research released Tuesday is the first to specifically analyze long-term data on exposure to toxic silica dust for workers at surface mines. The work reveals that while attention has been trained on a surge in disease among underground coal miners, surface miners are similarly at risk of contracting coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. 

Black lung disease has been identified in coal miners in every coal-mining state at both surface and underground mines. NIOSH researchers were specifically interested in surface miners’ exposure because those mines produce the most coal and, in 2017, twice as many miners worked at surface mines compared to underground mines. 

Researchers analyzed 54,040 coal dust samples taken on surface mines between 1982 and 2017 to determine the percent of that coal dust that was silica, and found that the level of silica was above the permissible limit in 15 percent of those samples. Silica dust comes from quartz in the rock layers near coal seams, and it is significantly more harmful to lung tissue than coal dust alone. 

“The exposure to coal mine dust declined over time,” said lead researcher and industrial hygienist Brent Doney. “However … when you look at the percentage of silica that was in those samples, that didn’t drop.” 

After decades of successful reduction in black lung disease through safety controls in coal mines, black lung disease has been on the rise among coal miners for the last two decades. Central Appalachia has seen a marked increase in the most severe form of black lung, known as progressive massive fibrosis. A recent investigation from NPR and PBS Frontline found that federal regulators and the mining industry knew that exposure to silica dust was a major factor contributing to the surge in disease but failed to act to protect miners’ health. 

The surge in disease is putting strain on the already-indebted federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, and as younger miners become disabled due to black lung, the strain on Appalachian mining communities continues to grow. 

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is a particularly novel finding,” NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney said. “The evidence is very clear. We know that silica and mine dust are toxic, and we have the technology to suppress it, and yet coal miners are still exposed to way too much of it. So from a public health perspective, there’s ample evidence to suggest that further safeguards are necessary.”

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which regulates coal mining, issued in August a request for information to determine whether additional regulation of silica was necessary, and if so, how best to proceed. Some critics of the administration argued the move was too little given what is already known about silica’s role in disease. 

 

MSHA Comment Period Shows Divide On Measures To Protect Miners Health Monday, Nov 25 2019 

The comment period has closed for the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s proposed rule on respirable silica, a major contributor to skyrocketing rates of lung disease among coal miners. The 49 relevant comments included a striking testimony from an anonymous coal miner sharing details of the ways in which current mine operators cheat on dust monitoring protocols.

MSHA issued the request for comment following an NPR/PBS Frontline investigation that found the agency had failed to adequately protect miners despite knowing that silica dust was contributing to an epidemic of black lung disease. Silica is a component of coal mine dust, and is released when miners cut into rock layers surrounding seams of coal. Particulates lodge in miners’ lungs for the rest of their lives, hardening lung tissue and preventing them from getting enough oxygen. 

The miner submitted testimony through the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, which withheld the miner’s name out of concern for the safety of his job. The miner said he worked underground for eight years before getting an MSHA dust sampling certification in 2017. 

I only did the dust sampling for a few months because the mine I was working for appeared to be violating the rules so much that I was afraid they would get caught and I would be held responsible,” the miner wrote.

“I learned that the company would hang the CPDMs in the intake air,” the miner continued. 

CPDMs refer to Continuous Personal Dust Monitors, devices designed to be worn by miners and to report real-time dust levels. Hanging the device in the flow of clean air would trigger its motion sensor, tricking the device into recording that a miner was wearing it while working while ensuring it only tracked clean air. 

“This letter reflects what a lot of miners tell me when they come to me for black lung evaluations,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, director of the Mining Education and Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They often report that they could get in trouble if they turned in what they called a bad sample, that they were told to or encouraged to make sure their dust samples did not exceed the exposure limits.” 

In its request for comment, MSHA said it would consider stronger environmental controls and a lower exposure limit, but it also suggested it was open to the use of personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as airstream helmets, which miners say are too bulky and uncomfortable for frequent use. 

“A lot of the mines buy what they want and they’re big and uncomfortable,” wrote commenter John Ormsbee, who identified himself as a current miner, speaking of the challenges of using personal protective equipment to meet silica standards. “Most make your glasses fog up and create a bigger hazard.”

Cohen submitted a comment on behalf of the American Thoracic Society, which supports a separately enforceable silica standard. “PPE is an unreliable method of controlling dust exposure,” Cohen said. “It makes no sense that we would allow PPE and therefore have less stringent air control requirements That would be a huge disservice, and it would go against our hierarchy of controls and our understanding of industrial hygiene that’s been in place for generations.”

The National Mining Association did not submit a comment, but has previously supported increased use of PPE. 

The Appalachian Citizens Law Center and the United Mine Workers of America both urged MSHA to adopt an emergency temporary standard to reflect the urgent need to address dust exposure for working miners. 

Industry groups in associated fields, such as the Portland Cement Association and the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association urged MSHA to regulate coal mining separately from other industries that also expose workers to respirable silica.

Roughly 20 percent of experienced Appalachian coal miners have some form of black lung disease. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that nation-wide, rates of black lung are higher than they’ve been since record-keeping began in the 1970s.

Black Lung Trust Fund Likely Burdened by Murray Bankruptcy Wednesday, Nov 20 2019 

The recent bankruptcy of Murray Energy is likely to significantly increase the debt of a struggling federal trust fund that supports disabled miners’ health care expenses. 

According to court filings, Murray Energy could be responsible for as much as $155 million under the Black Lung Act and general workers’ compensation, but testimony from the Government Accountability Office shows that the company only offered $1.1 million in collateral to the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. That means the struggling fund will likely have to take on at least some of that liability. 

The federal fund was established in 1978 to provide monthly stipends and health care coverage for miners disabled by black lung, a preventable and progressive workplace disease. The fund, which is supported by a per-ton tax on coal companies, currently covers expenses for some 25,000 miners and their dependents, and is expected to be $15 billion in debt by 2050. Last year, Congress failed to extend a higher per-ton tax rate, increasing the strain on the fund. 

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in an email to the ReSource, “While the temporary, higher tax expired last year, current benefits for our impacted miners and their families have been maintained. Senator McConnell will continue to ensure these important benefits are maintained. Additionally he will continue working on the many ways to help coal miners and the clinics that serve them across Kentucky.”

If the fund becomes insolvent, it may be bailed out by the Treasury’s general fund, effectively transferring the burden of caring for disabled miners from the industry that caused the illnesses to American taxpayers. 

“History shows that miners and their families will be forced to pay the price in the form of reduced eligibility for benefits if Congress allows the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to sink deeper into debt,” Rep. Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Ed and Labor committee, said in a hearing this summer. Given the recent rise in the most severe form of black lung disease, Congress must take action to secure future benefits and health care for disabled miners.” 

A spokesperson for Murray Energy did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but in court filings, newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of Holdings Robert Moore said, “Although Murray has been able to outlast many of its competitors, mounting debt and legacy liability expenses have become too heavy of a burden to sustain under current industry conditions.”

According to recent testimony from the Government Accountability Office, there were 22 self-insured active coal operators as of June 2019. Only 10 of those had provided estimates for their total unfunded liability to the trust fund — that is, the potential debt that could be transferred to the federal government if the company filed for bankruptcy.

“An estimated black lung liability of over $310 million has been transferred to the trust fund from insolvent coal operators,” said GAO Director of Education, Workforce and Income Security Cindy Brown Barnes. “In addition to those liabilities being transferred, there’s also the beneficiaries that have come along with that. There’s been over 1500 beneficiaries that have been transferred to the trust fund as a result of the companies that we looked at from 2014 to 2016.” 

Brown Barnes could not confirm how much, if any, liability from Murray Energy would be transferred to the fund.  

“Just because a company is bankrupt, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the liabilities are going to be transferred to the trust fund,” Brown Barnes cautioned. “There’s one liability at the time of bankruptcy and then another liability that gets transferred to the fund. It’s not a one-to-one.”

A report further detailing that unfunded liability, and its implications for the solvency of the trust fund, is expected early next year. 

A Larger Pattern

As of October 29, Murray reported approximately $2.7 billion in funded debt and over $8 billion in actual or potential legacy liability obligations under pension and benefit plans, including the black lung trust fund. As Murray’s numerous secured creditors vie to recoup as much of their debts as they can, it is likely that there won’t be money left over to pay back environmental, retiree and health care debts. 

“When you have this pattern of a large company spinning off its least productive assets and loading those assets with obligations that it obviously doesn’t want to pay, it seems to look like it’s a strategy,” said Josh Macey, an assistant visiting professor at Cornell University. 

Macey is a co-author of a recent article in the Stanford Law Review titled, “Bankruptcy as Bailout: Coal Company Insolvency and the Erosion of Federal Law.” In that paper, Macey and his co-author found that since 2012, four of the nation’s largest coal producers used bankruptcy to discharge roughly $3.2 billion in retiree benefits and $1.9 billion in environmental debts, as well as $5.2 billion in other regulatory obligations. Those numbers were current as of April 2019, before the high-profile bankruptcies of Blackjewel, Blackhawk, and Murray Energy. 

Macey said Murray took a slightly different tack than other companies in similar positions. Rather than spinning off unprofitable assets into new companies that were designed to fail, Macey said, “Murray went about snatching [assets] up at a pretty frenzied pace, because it was able to in that way pledge more assets as collateral and give its own creditors tons and tons of collateral that ensured they, too, would be paid before miners and the environment.”

New Kentucky Memorial Honors Miners Who Died Of Black Lung Sunday, Oct 13 2019 

bl memorialCoal miners and family members of miners who have died from black lung disease gathered Sunday in Whitesburg, Kentucky, to dedicate a new memorial to miners who perished from the workplace disease. 

While Appalachian coal country has several memorials to mining disasters, this is believed to be the first memorial to remember the thousands of men and women who have died from black lung.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

A dedication service for the new black lung memorial in Whitesburg, KY.

The engraved black stone memorial stands at Riverside Park in Whitesburg and will list the names of some 200 Letcher County coal miners who died of the disease.

William McCool was the first person to suggest the memorial after his father died of the disease.  

“You know, let’s give these men the honor they deserve. Let’s not forget them,” he said.

The total number of coal miners who have died from the disease is unknown, but the Department of Labor says more than a thousand coal miners die of black lung each year. Black lung cases are surging in the Ohio Valley, and health officials say about one in five experienced miners in central Appalachian has some form of the disease. 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

The memorial lists hundreds of local miners who have died from black lung.

Experts say the epidemic is getting worse because miners are working in thinner seams of coal, and are exposed to higher levels of silica, or quartz dust, from the surrounding rock layers, which is more toxic than coal dust alone. 

McCool also suffers from black lung. He expects his name will be on the stone memorial one day, too.

“It would be a blessing to be with them boys,” he said.

Coal Miners To Hit Capitol Hill For Black Lung Funding  Monday, Jul 22 2019 

Dozens of Appalachian coal miners plan to visit Capitol Hill Tuesday to ask lawmakers to bolster funding for the black lung disability trust fund, which miners depend upon when no responsible company can be identified to pay for needed health care. 

The fund is already billions of dollars in debt, and that will likely grow as more miners develop the disease and coal companies pay less into the fund. Coal companies pay a tax to support the trust fund, which pays monthly income and health benefits for miners who were disabled by the preventable and deadly occupational disease. 

The tax rate was increased in 1981 to pay down the fund’s debts and in 2008 that tax rate was extended for another 10 years. But Congress allowed the tax rate to expire last year and companies now pay about half as much per ton of coal. 

Now the trust fund’s debt is expected to rise from $4 billion to $15 billion by 2050. 

Over 25,000 miners and their dependents rely on the fund for monthly income and health benefits. Demand is expected to grow as diagnoses of severe forms of the disease skyrocket, particularly among Appalachian miners. 

Barry Johnson is planning to make the trip to Washington. A fourth-generation coal miner, he  takes great pride in his decades of hard work underground. Johnson has a serious form of black lung disease called progressive massive fibrosis.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Disabled miner Barry Johnson wears an oxygen tube to assist breathing.

He carries a portable oxygen tank, though he tries to use it as little as possible so his lungs don’t get used to the help. “I have good days and bad days,” he said, gazing at the collection of hardhats on his mantelpiece. “Today is a bad day.” 

Johnson used to enjoy spending time in the woods hunting for ginseng. Now he struggles with daily tasks. “It doesn’t only take your health. It takes your identity.” 

Travelling isn’t easy for the disabled miner, but he says the long trip to Washington D.C. is worth it. Johnson worries that if Congress doesn’t act, the fund could no longer be able to make its payments, or would need to be bailed out by taxpayers. 

Industry Woes

Despite favorable policies from the Trump administration, the coal industry has continued to struggle amid high-profile bankruptcies and the closure of more coal-fired power plants. 

“This is an industry that is still working hard to stabilize after years of decline – now is clearly not the time to raise taxes on the coal industry,” said National Mining Association spokesperson Ashley Burke. “Doing so would further disadvantage coal against competing energy sources.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Black lung activists say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky could have preserved the trust fund tax rate before it expired last year. Indeed, he suggested to the Ohio Valley ReSource in October that he would do so. 

McConnell’s staff members say the issue is a concern for him.

“Even though the temporary tax increase expired last year, current benefits for our impacted miners and their families have remained at prior levels,” said McConnell spokesperson Stephanie Penn. “Senator McConnell and his staff have been working closely with interested parties regarding future funding for the program, and will continue to ensure these important benefits are maintained.”

McConnell’s office says he’s agreed to speak with the visiting miners. Miner Barry Johnson knows exactly what he wants to say.

“You have a duty and an obligation,” he said. “Do what’s right.” 

Potential Action

Brandon Crum, a Kentucky-based radiologist who first sounded the alarm about the epidemic, said last month that the past six months have been the worst of his career, as cases of severe black lung disease pile up. 

brandon-mackie-2Howard Berkes, NPR

Mackie Branham views a lung X-ray with Dr. James Brandon Crum, who was among the first physicians to note an uptick in black lung diagnoses.

An NPR and PBS Frontline investigation found that the surge in disease, which is significantly focused on central Appalachia, is largely the result of a failure by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to regulate silica dust, which is prevalent in the rock surrounding Appalachian coal seams. 

Congress is paying attention. A House Education and Labor subcommittee in June considered whether MSHA had taken silica exposure risk seriously enough.