Hearing: Don’t Cut Corners with Miners’ Safety

At 9:00 A.M. sharp on August 10, a small phalanx of smiling, well-coiffed elderly women began herding a crowd of several dozen people into the auditorium of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, West Virginia.

Among the crowd were former coal miners and their spouses, lawyers, pulmonologists, black lung clinic staff, environmental activists, local media, union representatives, and concerned citizens — all there to attend a public hearing for a new proposed rule from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that seeks to limit silica exposure in the nation’s coal mines to 50 micrograms per cubic meter, down from 100. 

I was there too, both to document the proceedings and offer my own brief testimony. I have been following this rule’s progression since I began reporting on the black lung epidemic last year, and was thrilled to see it finally enter the public comment portion.

As I found in my recent investigation for In These Times, black lung now afflicts more than one in eight coal miners in Kentucky and West Virginia who have been working underground for 20-24 years, up from one in 30 a decade ago. Younger miners — those who have spent only 15-19 years underground — are becoming sicker with pulmonary massive fibrosis, the most severe form of the disease.

As I wrote then, workers in their 30s and 40s are now making their way to the same black lung clinics that served their parents and grandparents, and fighting the same battles against red tape and corporate malfeasance to win black lung benefits. And it is all completely preventable. 

The hearing in Beckley was chaired by Patricia Silvey, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations at MSHA, and stretched for nearly four hours of comments, testimonies, personal stories, questions and occasional pushback from the agency.

It was the second such hearing to be held — and almost didn’t happen at all.

The first hearing had taken place a week earlier, on August 3, in Arlington, Virginia, and another is being held on August 21, in Denver, Colorado. Both those locations make logistical sense: MSHA operates a training center near Denver, and the Arlington location is both right outside Washington, D.C., and also near the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) headquarters in nearby Triangle, Virginia.

But without the addition of Beckley, the Central Appalachia communities most affected by the proposed rule — and hit the hardest by the black lung epidemic that is currently ravaging the region’s coal miners as a result of overexposure to respirable crystalline silica — would have struggled to make their voices heard during the crucial public comment period.

Beckley was hastily added to the schedule after local advocacy groups like Appalachian Voices called on MSHA to include a hearing in the region. ​

“Many impacted workers and families are struggling financially because their family members are no longer able to work due to black lung disease, and traveling such a long distance is simply not a financial possibility,” Appalachian Voices explained in a July 10 letter to MSHA. ​“Other impacted workers are not physically well enough to make the roundtrip so far away.”

As it stood, many of the attendees at the Aug. 10 hearing still had to go the extra mile to make it out. Vonda Robinson, vice president of the National Black Lung Association, and her husband John, a former miner now struggling with advanced black lung disease, drove three hours from their home near the Tennessee border.

Both spoke in favor of strengthening the proposed rule to ensure that mine operators can’t cut corners with miners’ safety. Her voice strong with emotion, Vonda Robinson told the hearing room how much the disease has damaged her 57-year-old husband’s quality of life, and how badly it pains her to see younger men still being stricken with it today. 

This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on August 21, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Kim Kelly is an independent labor journlist and author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. Asbestos killed her grandfather, a former steelworker, and she hopes to help prevent others from losing their own loved ones to occupational disease.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.