Energy & Environment

Senators representing Appalachia call out delay of new mining safety standard

FILE – Coal miner Scott Tiller takes shelter from the rain after coming out of an underground mine at the end of a shift in Welch, W.Va., May 12, 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Five Democratic senators whose states comprise much of Appalachia wrote to the federal mine safety regulator Monday, questioning the delay in new standards for exposure to a compound linked to incurable respiratory diseases.

In a letter to Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson, the senators noted that the Labor Department had projected a new rule on silica exposure would be released in January 2022. However, they noted, it has yet to be released as of November. Signers of the letter included Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Silica exposure has been tied to respiratory ailments such as silicosis, black lung and progressive massive fibrosis, a late-stage form of black lung in which large masses form in the lungs’ upper lobes.

The letter cites a report issued in November 2020 by the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General calling for improvements in protections for coal miners from silica exposure. “A significant body of evidence shows that lowering the silica limit would be a major factor in preventing coal workers’ deaths and illnesses caused by silica exposure,” that report states, but the limit has remained essentially unchanged for about six decades despite the MSHA’s knowledge of scientific recommendations.

The number of coal miners with black lung was triple the amount in the first half of the 2010s compared to the latter half of the 1990s, the report said, and available data suggests breathing crystalline silica played a large role in the increase.

“For generations, our brave coal miners have risked their lives and health to power our nation to greatness,” they wrote. “We have an obligation as a country to protect their health and welfare with commonsense rules and regulations, and we look forward to working with you to do just that.”

In a statement Monday afternoon, Williamson said “Issuing a proposed rule to better protect miners from developing occupational illnesses related to respirable crystalline silica exposure is a top priority for me and MSHA.”  

“Our team understands the importance of getting these improved protections in place for miners, and I want to assure miners, labor, mine operators, and the rest of the mining community that we are devoting every available resource and working as quickly as possible to put out a proposed rule,” Williamson added.

–Updated at 5:45 p.m.

Tags Appalachia coal miners Joe Manchin Silica
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