Rockefeller gets feedback on Black Lung prevention and benefits program

Sep 12, 2013

Sen. Jay Rockefeller
Credit State of West Virginia / State of West Virginia

New policy that that would cut in half the amount of permissible coal dust in underground mines is making its way through federal agencies in the form of proposed rule and regulation changes

The same stricter standards are proposed in legislation introduced this summer by Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

day in Bluefield to discuss the increasing cases of Back Lung disease, noting more than 2000 West Virginia miners have died of Black Lung over the last decade.

“I think the most important thing I want to say is Black Lung is totally preventable,” said Rockefeller to a packed room in the Bluefield Area Arts Center. “And to do that we’re going to have to change our habits and change our rules and regulations of our federal government or our laws. And if the first doesn’t happen I’m prepared to do the second.”

The standard of allowable coal dust in underground mines has been 2 milligrams of respirable coal dust per cubic meter of air.

Anita Wolfe, coordinator for the Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was part of a panel of experts that spoke to attendants and took questions. She said NIOSH has pushed to cut those standards in half for about 25 years, and that it is clear the current enforcement standards are not protecting human health.

“With the technology that we have and what we know about the disease, it shouldn’t be happening. We’re seeing miners as young as 39 years old with Black Lung,” said Wolfe. “We’re seeing an accelerated rate like we’ve never seen before.”

“It’s caused by inhalation of too much dust, it’s not rocket science, so dust control in the mines is the key,” she said.

Third generation coal miner Vernon Bailey spoke of his 35 years underground in a coal mine in Keystone in McDowell County.

“They would tell us if the mine stops down to deal with dust, they’ll lose money, and perhaps shut down the mine,” said Bailey. “So the coal miner is willing to take a risk or two to keep the mines open, and keep his job.”

Dan Doyle, MD, director of the New River Health Center, a black lung clinic in Fayette County, criticized what he called a culture of profit.

“If a longwall is going to be ruined by coal dust, costing millions, they’ll take care of it, but humans are expendable,” said Doyle.

“What kind of society puts profit ahead of human health? A miner should go into his job with the sense that he is going to outlive it.”

Eighty-five year old Donald Rasmussen, MD, a pioneer in Black Lung disease diagnosis and treatment, said the black lung benefits program is terribly flawed.

“If I see a miner who has disabling lung disease, I know it’s going to be a long, long time before or if he receives lung benefits, and that’s frustrating, very frustrating,” said Rasmussen.

District director of the federal black lung program, Rick Hanna, described the program as adversarial, pitting miner against company, with both parties needing a legal team.

“We reject about 85% of miners because the law requires them to be totally disabled. Many have Black Lung, but don’t yet meet the threshold of totally disabled yet,” said Hanna.

“The good news for the miner is since it is a progressive disease, he can file for benefits again down the road as he gets sicker,” he added.

Rockefeller interjected into Hanna’s presentation, saying “But that means hiring an attorney again. And that takes money. And the coal companies have the best attorneys that money can provide.”

“It doesn’t seem terribly fair,” said Rockefeller.

The Black Lung Health Improvements Act of 2013 was introduced by Rockefeller in August, seeking to cut the amount of permissible dust in half.  

But if the allowable dust levels aren’t lowered thru legislation, they may be adopted by the Obama administration. Last week the standards that have been supported by NIOSH for 25 years were approved by the U.S. Department of Labor and are now in the Office of Management and Budget, which Rockefeller said would be the last stop before possible adoption.   

In March, Rockefeller introduced the Coal Accountability and Retired Employee (CARE) Act, that would protect the promised lifetime pension and healthcare benefits for thousands of retired miners.

In April, Rockefeller re-introduced an updated version of his comprehensive mine safety legislation, the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act, aimed at fixing what he called the glaring safety problems revealed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.