December 16, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

[Updated 1/4/12 below]

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. pointed me yesterday to the latest attack on working people. House and Senate negotiators have apparently come to an agreement on an FY 2012 spending bill (165-page PDF) which includes funding for the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Tacked onto the bill are a litany of favors to special interests, including this one for Big Coal:

MSHA is prohibited from spending any funds to complete its health standard to protect miners from developing black lung disease until the Government Accountability Office (GAO) prepares a report on the “sufficiency of MSHA’s analytical methodology, the “completeness of MSHA’s data collection and sampling,” and “whether such data supports current trends of the incidence of lung disease” among current coal miners. (The full text of the rider is provided below)

I’m sure some will try to spin this as a reasonable double-check on MSHA’s work. That’s baloney. It’s a classic move by powerful, economic interests to halt or delay worker health protection. I am confident (because I’ve seen this script before) that the 8 month time period given to GAO to prepare its analysis will lead to a much longer delay for the MSHA rule. I guarantee that the mining industry will insist that, once the GAO report is completed, MSHA must seek public comment on it, and also hold public hearings to discuss it. A potential 8 month congressionally-mandated interruption in completing much-needed enhancements for coal miners’ health will turn into a year or more delay.

The lawmakers who are responsible for this anti-public health, anti-worker mandate are ignoring one of the most disturbing findings from the bodies of the men who died in the Upper Big Branch mine. Twenty four of the 29 coal miners had enough lung tissue to be examined by the medical examiner. Seventeen of the 24 (71%) had fibrotic scarring consistent with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). The youngest with CWP was 25 years old, the oldest 61 years, and the median age 50. Five of the men had less than 10 years of mining experience and four of them worked almost exclusively at UBB. All but one of the 17 men with CWP began working in coal mines after the 2.0 milligram coal mine dust limit was put in affect in 1973. This was the exposure limit that was believed at the time to be sufficient to prevent black lung disease. It clearly is not and we’ve known that since 1995. The epidemiological and toxicological evidence demonstrating the inadequacy of the 2.0 milligram standard was published by NIOSH in a 1995 criteria document.

We did not learn of these men’s lung disease because they “self-selected” to undergo a chest xray. No, these men sadly represent a small random sample of typical coal miners. They probably tell us more about what is really going on in the lungs of coal miners than what we customarily learn from current voluntary x-ray surveillance programs.

MSHA’s efforts to issue an enhanced health standard to protect coal miners from black lung and silicosis dates back to the Clinton Administration. A federal advisory committee comprised of experts from industry, labor and public health recommended sweeping changes in 1996 to MSHA’s black lung prevention regulations. The rule proposed by MSHA (and the target of this delay tactic) are based largely on those advisory committee recommendations.

After MSHA proposed this changes in October 2010, the agency provided a seven month-long period for interested parties to submit their comments, analyses, and feedback on the proposal. The agency also held public hearings in seven different mining States. The National Mining Association and some coal companies hired experts to critique the evidence assembled by MSHA and to testify at the public hearings. It’s hard to believe that Congressional Appropriators have bought the argument that the proposal and the evidence supporting it have not been adequately vetted.

Big Coal rules on Capitol Hill and obviously among some Congressional Appropriators. They ignore the solid evidence that U.S. miners are still developing black lung disease, including the alarming autopsy evidence from the Upper Big Branch victims. They prefer to spend taxpayer money on an unnecessary GAO report to satisfy the wishes of the coal industry. Some coal miners are developing black lung disease after less than 10 years of experience in a mine. These lawmakers should consider that when they make decisions to obstruct and delay, for even a year or two, new rules to protect miners’ from this disabling and deadly disease.

[Update 1/4/12: The text of this rider was included in the appropriations bill signed by President Obama on January 23, 2011.]

Full text of the proposed appropriations rider: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement or enforce the· proposed rule entitled “Lowering Miners’ Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors” regulation published by MSHA of the Department of Labor on October 19, 2010 (75 Fed. Reg. 64412, RIN 1219-AB64) until (1) the Government Accountability Office (GAO) (A) issues, at a minimum, an interim report which (i) evaluates the completeness of MSHA’s data collection and sampling, to include an analysis of whether such data supports current trends of the incidence of lung disease arising from occupational exposure to respirable coal mine dust across working underground coal miners; and (ii) assesses the sufficiency of MSHA’s analytical methodology; and (B) not later than 240 days after enactment of this Act, submits the report described in subparagraph (A) to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate; or (2) the deadline described in paragraph (l)(B) for submission of the report has passed.”

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