Investigation blames regulatory failure for black lung 'epidemic'

An NPR/PBS "Frontline" investigation published on Tuesday found that the government has known for decades about warning signs that preceded a recent black lung "epidemic," which has sickened thousands of coal miners.

The investigation found that federal regulators have been aware of the dangers of silica dust dating back to the Clinton administration but have not introduced measures to control the substance. Silica dust has been linked to black lung disease.

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Silica dust is generated when coal miners cut sandstone. The investigation identified thousands of instances in which coal miners were exposed to excessive levels of toxic silica dust since the 1980s. 

NPR found more than 2,000 cases of miners suffering from black lung disease between 2011 and 2016. 

Scott Laney, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, told NPR that it is an "epidemic." 

"[It's] clearly one of the worst industrial medicine disasters that's ever been described," Laney said. "We're counting thousands of cases. Thousands and thousands and thousands of black lung cases. Thousands of cases of the most severe form of black lung. And we're not done counting yet."

Federal regulators have been presented with evidence that silica can be connected to a rise in black lung disease during every administration since former President Clinton's, according to documents analyzed by NPR. Each time, the government did not enact measures to address the issue for coal miners.

As it stands, when regulators find the amount of silica in the air exceeds federal health standards, they place limits on the mine's coal dust, according to NPR. The investigation found evidence that silica levels remained dangerously high after regulators intervened. 

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal agency tasked with protecting mine workers' wellness, defended the coal dust rules in a statement to NPR. 

"The dust rule ... has greatly reduced miners' exposure to respirable dust," MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told the outlet. "MSHA continues to work diligently to protect coal miners' health." 

A recent review from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that the coal dust rules, which went into effect starting in 2014, "may not guarantee that exposures will be controlled adequately or that future disease rates will decline." 

Celeste Monforton, who worked as a mine safety regulator under Clinton, told NPR after reviewing the investigation's findings, "We failed."