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Coal miners say new limits on rock dust 'could save some lives'

Retired West Virginia coal miner Terry Lilly, who has black lung, speaks during a public hearing hosted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration about its draft rule to limit worker exposure on Thursday.
Leah Willingham
Retired West Virginia coal miner Terry Lilly, who has black lung, speaks during a public hearing hosted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration about its draft rule to limit worker exposure on Thursday.

Former coal miner Terry Lilly sat down in front of a panel of federal regulators and struggled to speak.

"Excuse me, I have trouble breathing. I'm at 40 percent of my lung capacity," he said.

Lilly, who suffers from the deadly disease black ling, showed up at the hearing Thursday near Beckley, W.Va., in the heart of Appalachian coal country, to support a proposed rule that would limit the amount of deadly silica dust in the air in coal mines.

The problem of severe lung disease from silica dust has been getting worse in recent years, and has been affecting younger miners.

With his words punctuated by gulps of air, Lilly talked about the deception he had seen over 30 years in the industry, including tampering with dust samples.

"I'm as guilty as any of them for hiding dust samples," said Lilly. "Cheating on samples is what we need to stop. If we could stop this, we could save some lives."

Lilly and others showed up at the hearing to tell the federal government to put mine operators on a tighter leash.

"The only thing that mining companies understand is money," said labor lawyer Sam Petsonk. "They don't understand or appreciate the blood and the lives of miners, because if they did, they would have protected miners willingly over the last several decades."

The hearing before a Department of Labor panel was called to discuss a proposed new rule that would limit the amount of dangerous silica dust in the air in coal mines and other mines.

In coal mines, silica dust gets into the air when machines cut into rock layers that surround coal deposits.

As the coal deposits have been mined out over decades, more rock is cut and more silica dust gets into the air. Those tiny particles can lodge in the lungs permanently and cause a severe form of black lung disease.

A 2018 investigation by NPR and the PBS program FRONTLINE found that advanced black lung disease was more prevalent than federal monitors had thought, and that miners were exposed to dangerous levels of silica thousands of times over a 30-year period.

The proposed new rule would directly regulate silica in the air for the first time.
Petsonk, who represents miners in black lung and other cases, told regulators he thinks the rule should require more air monitoring and should contain specifics about citations and fines.

"A rule without penalties is no rule at all," he said.

But the panel's moderator, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations Patricia Silvey, pushed back. While the proposed rule itself "does not deal with penalties," she said penalties could follow nonetheless if a mine operator is cited for violating the new silica standard.

Plus, Silvey said, "If an overexposure occurs, an operator absolutely must do three things right away: Take immediate corrective action, make a record of that overexposure, and then resample to see if that corrective action is working."

One controversial part of the proposed regulation would allow mine operators who have too much silica in the air to continue having their employees work in the hazardous areas, while wearing a respirator mask. Researchers have challenged the effectiveness of masks to prevent dangerous silica exposure.

"Respirators are effectively a Band Aid in the situation but they're an ineffective and impractical solution when dust levels are high," said Dr. Leonard Go, a University of Illinois pulmonologist.

As he testified, Go looked around the room and saw a lot of coal miners, and their beards.

Those beards get in the way of respirators. So does a hot, loud and strenuous work environment where miners tend to take off their respirators to talk or to take a breath.

"Reliance on respirators in the real world is a mistake, providing a false sense of security that a miner is protected from silica exposure," Go said.

As for Lilly, he says he often talks to younger miners and warns them about the dangers they face.

"It's too late for me. But I'd like these young people to realize, they need to wake up. One of these days, you'll be like me - you can't walk across the parking lot."

A public comment period on the proposed rule ends on September 11. Regulators rebuffed calls by industry interests to extend the comment period for two months and instead extended it by 15 days.

The Labor department will hold a third and final hearing about the proposed silica rule in Denver later this month.

Justin Hicks of Louisville Public Media contributed to this report.

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Robert Benincasa is a computer-assisted reporting producer in NPR's Investigations Unit.