Black lung resurgence fires up Democrats

Source: E&E News

June 18, 2019

A spike in the number of cases of black lung disease has put federal regulators in the crosshairs of the new House Democratic majority.

With a hearing titled “Breathless and Betrayed,” the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections appears ready to take the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration to task for the reemergence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.

From the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act’s enactment in 1969 to 2000, black lung rates dropped from above 30% to 5% among miners with at least 25 years of experience underground.

Rates have climbed since. Last year, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirmed the largest ever cluster of the most severe form of the already fatal, untreatable condition — 416 cases of progressive massive fibrosis in three Virginia clinics.

The rise comes despite the Obama administration reducing the limit for respirable coal dust. Under the 2014 rule, which went into effect in 2016, more than 99% of 25,441 valid samples collected nationwide were compliant.

While black lung can take years to manifest, a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called for “a fundamental shift” in how mine operators approach coal dust controls, sampling and monitoring.

Currently, MSHA is gathering input until July 9 as part of a required “retrospective study” of the 2014 regulations to assess their effectiveness.

Trump MSHA chief David Zatezalo, a former coal executive, has refused to alter the dust standard despite industry pressure, but his agency has been slow to react to the recent uptick.

The coal industry has advocates for other ways to combat the disease like making lung screenings mandatory. It has also fought against continuing a higher black lung excise tax rate charged on every ton of coal mined.

Congress allowed the tax, which pays living and medical expenses for more than 25,000 sick miners whose former companies have gone out of business, to drop by more than half to 50 cents per ton from an underground mine and 25 cents per ton from a surface mine.

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has sponsored a bill to restore the black lung tax to $1.10 per underground ton and 55 cents per surface ton.

  1. S. 27 would use the revenue to cover black lung benefits and offset increased federal spending to prop up the United Mine Workers of America’s imperiled pension fund for 100,000-plus union coal miners. Coal companies oppose the increase, saying it can ill-afford it during a tumultuous time for their industry.


Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, June 20, at 10:15 a.m. in 2175 Rayburn.


Written by: Dylan Brown