Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

April 24, 2014

New rule aims at reducing coal dust exposure

LAKE SHAWNEE — The U.S. Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration announced on Wednesday a new rule aimed at reducing the amount of allowable coal dust in underground coal mines in order to reduce the exposure to the potential of contracting coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung.

“We don’t need the black lung disease,” Dennis Robertson, benefits counselor and outreach recruiter for the black lung program at the Bluestone Health Care Clinic said. “The miners I talk to with black lung don’t want the check. They ask me, ‘Dennis, can we get our lungs back.”

Robertson had been invited to travel to Morgantown for the announcement, but was unable to go. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez stated at the announcement that, “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood,” according to an Associated Press report of the event. Joseph Main, MSHA’s assistant secretary of labor, said that he has made a personal commitment to helping eradicate black lung disease.

“I personally know miners who have had the disease and died from the disease — the same as other folks who grew up in coal mining communities,” Main, a native of Greene County, Pa., in the heart of the southwestern Pennsylvania coalfields said.

The new rule seeks to reduce the overall dust standard from 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter of air to 1.5 cubic meter per cubic meter. In addition, the rule seeks to cut current standards in half for certain coal miners who already have black lung. “We probably all would have liked to move faster, but you’ve got to be careful when your getting to regulatory processes like this,” Main was quoted as stating in the AP report.

“Unfortunately, the number of coal miners we are seeing with black lung is growing and we are seeing younger coal miners contracting the disease,” Robertson said. “The dust level is one of the two biggest challenges we are facing now, but so is the amount of time coal miners are exposed to coal dust. Some coal miners are working 10-12 hour days, six days a week.

“As a result, we are seeing coal miners dying of black lung disease in their 50s,” Robertson said. “When you add in the frustration of the adversarial relationship between coal miners with black lung and their companies who fight against them when they seek their benefits, it makes it even worse,” Robertson said.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., issued a statement applauding MSHA’s new rule. “Our coal miners have mined the coal that keeps our lights on, heats our homes and powers our businesses and it is unacceptable that they still face the threat of black lung disease,” Manchin was quoted in the press release as stating. “With cases of this debilitating disease again on the rise, I applaud MSHA’s efforts and look forward to working with them to find the most effective way to protect miners.”

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., stated in a press release that he has fought against “the scourge of black lung disease” throughout his career. “While the details of the rule issued by MSHA today will be subject to much debate and strict scrutiny, the goal of the rule — to eliminate black lung — is one I support wholeheartedly.”

Robertson said that the coal miners who suffer with black lung that he has come to know, “They’re like family,” he said. “Black lung disease is one of the most horrifying diseases there are. The black pigmentation and the quality of living tissue will become hard like a rock,” Robertson said.

The National Black Lung Association will meet June 3-6, at Pipestem State Park to discuss the new MSHA rule as well as other issues faced by coal miners who suffer from the disease, Robertson said.

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