Strong Opposition Forcing Trump Administration to Reconsider Rewriting Black Lung Rules

by | Jan 2, 2018

Donald Trump rode to the office of the presidency with the full support of coal miners — that he had the little guy in mind as he has methodically sought to rollback regulations that have affected coal production. But his office had been considering rolling back a different kind of regulation — the one to protect those same miners from “black lung” disease, which comes from breathing in coal dust.

Loud protests, however, are causing the president to rethink that position, which was sought by the coal mining companies. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) now wants public comments on how to maintain the safety miners while at the same time make the rules less “burdensome” and less “costly” for companies.

“Because of the carcinogenic health risk to miners from exposure to diesel exhaust, MSHA is requesting information on approaches that would improve control of diesel particulate matter and diesel exhaust,” the agency said.

The dilemma for the Trump administration is that it has promised to reduce the regulatory burden for industries across the board. And that, of course, includes all of those pertaining to mining and even those that protect miners. But this far to the bone runs counter to what the administration said that it represents — the little guy and making things better for them.

As an overarching point, it would then stand to reason that cutting environmental regulations may improve business prospects but that it also impacts the quality of life for all people, including the working class. But unless such regulations are seen and felt — as they would be with respect to black lung disease, then it is easier for the White House to enact those changes.

The country-at-large does not know much about black lung, given that mine production is not country-wide and it is in a certain number of states. But for those who followed the trial of the coal baron Don Blankenship, prosecutors there had played tapes where the former chief executive of Massey Energy had downplayed black lung by essentially calling it a trumped up disease.

When the 29 miners died in an underground explosion in April 2010, it was revealed that most of them had black lung. Jurors might have been of the view that these men were expendable assets in the quest to increase production — precisely the argument that prosecutors laid out. So does it really make sense for Trump to weaken the laws designed to protect miners from black lung?

“I think it’s a very bad signal for coal miners that MSHA is wanting to revisit the issue of coal dust and rock dust as well as diesel exhaust,” said attorney Tony Oppegard, who represents miners in safety cases, as quoted in the Associated Press.  “I don’t think the Trump administration has coal miners’ best interests at heart. They’re aligned with coal mine operators as opposed to miners, and the only reasons they would want to reopen these rules or revisit these rules are to weaken them.”

Another key reason why the Trump administration may backtrack here is because the coal industry and the labor movement have been in synch for several years — mostly a function of coming together to battle the regulations put in place by the Obama administration. Historically, however, miners and companies have gone toe-to-toe:

Dating back to the early 20th Century, coal companies ruled with an iron fist Before unions, they were iron-fisted and had used private guards from the Baldwin-Felts agency. Industry was all-controlling, owning the miners’ housing and the stores where they shopped. And nationally, coal helped feed a growing country and eventually, a national war effort.

Miners then sought to organize, which led to armed conflict between the factions. And it wasn’t until 1935 when workers were officially allowed to unionize that conditions improved — the culmination of efforts by such activists as Mother Jones and Frank Keeney.

But mechanization in combination with reduced coal demand and thinning seams means that fewer miners are now required. Their downers are a fifth of what they had been at the height of mining boom in the middle of the last century. Weaker unions mean less bargaining power and possibly precarious working conditions. It’s not theoretical, given the recent misdemeanor conviction coal baron Blankenship on charges that he willfully violated mine safety standards.

“We believe in worker safety first and foremost,” said a letter penned by Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Joe Manchin, as reported by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “We urge you to retain the respirable dust rule and prevent the unnecessary erosion of vital mine safety and health standards.”

Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal in 1969 by passing legislation, the paper said, but between 1968 and 2014, more than 76,000 coal miners nationwide died from the disease.

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