Federal regulators have proposed changes aimed at protecting coal miners from the debilitating, often deadly disease called black lung, but sharp divisions over the rules were clear at a conference in Lexington on Thursday.
Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington said many members of Congress have questions about the rules, including whether they would add burden and cost on coal companies that would far outweigh any benefit to miners. If companies cut employment because of regulatory costs, it does nothing to advance the cause of workers' health, Barr said.
"Worker safety is a top priority, but not at the cost of putting that family in a very precarious financial situation," Barr said.
Eastern Kentucky and nearby areas of West Virginia and Virginia have seen a pronounced spike in cases of black lung, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In Eastern Kentucky, 9 percent of the miners screened in one NIOSH program between 2005 and 2009 had black lung. It was the highest prevalence of any state.
Stanley Sturgill, a retired federal mine inspector from Harlan County, told Barr his position sounded like, "The coal operators' money trumps the coal miners' safety."
"You worry about costs. I don't. I worry about coal miners," Sturgill told Barr outside the meeting room later.
Barr, however, said the question in the cost-benefit analysis was not simply how the rule would affect coal companies, but whether it would hurt related businesses and the wider economy and drive up electricity costs.
No one should get black lung, Barr said, but regulators need to strike the right balance.
"Let's make sure we're not so overzealous that we put these people out of work," he said of miners.
Barr spoke at a conference put on by the Central Appalachian Regional Education and Research Center, which is at the University of Kentucky and is a partnership of UK and Eastern Kentucky University. The federally-funded center sponsors research on worker health and safety, provides education and works to develop ways to make workplaces safer.
Black lung is caused by breathing coal dust kicked up during mining. A related disease, silicosis, is caused by breathing dust from rocks broken apart in mining. The tortuous diseases choke off airways and often lead to premature death.
Black lung has been the underlying or contributing cause of death of more than 76,000 miners since 1968, according to figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That total does not include deaths from silicosis.
Congress passed a law in 1969 limiting workers' exposure to dust in mines with better mine ventilation and other measures.
By the mid-1990s, miners' risk of getting black lung had dropped by 89 percent, Dr. Edward Petsonk of West Virginia University, who has done extensive research on the disease, said at the conference.
"I really thought that the disease was going to go away," Petsonk said.
However, the prevalence of the lung diseases among coal miners started going back up, and doctors started seeing miners getting severe forms of the diseases at younger ages.
Researchers have identified some likely causes, including that miners are working longer shifts; increased mining of thinner coal seams in Central Appalachia, which requires cutting through more rock; inadequate dust-control rules; and failure by coal companies to comply with the rules.
Safety advocates and miners also say companies have cheated on dust sampling at times.
In response to the upswing in black-lung cases, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed changes in the rules controlling dust in underground mines.
Among other things, the proposed rules would cut the limit on miners' exposure to dust; require miners to wear personal monitors to provide real-time dust readings; and change how companies monitor dust exposure.
Now, companies sample for an eight-hour shift, and the dust level is calculated using data from five shifts. Companies can reduce production during sampling, cutting the amount of dust kicked up.
The new rule would require sampling over an entire, single shift at production equal to 100 percent of the past 30 shifts.
MSHA chief Joe Main, who spoke at the conference, said he did not know when the dust rules would be finalized.
Main said fatality and injury rates in mining hit record lows last year. Changes at MSHA — such as stepped-up inspections of problem mines — and attention to safety by the industry have helped drive down deaths and injuries, Main said.
Barr said he and others have questions about the justification for the changes to dust rules, as well as the accuracy of the proposed testing.
The National Mining Association has opposed the proposed new rules.
The association argues that black lung is not increasing nationwide, but only in some regional hot spots like Eastern Kentucky. That does not justify changing the rules for the whole mining industry, Bruce Watzman, senior vice-president at the association, said at Thursday's conference.
Research has found a lower-than-expected prevalence of black lung in some areas of the country, Watzman said.
The proposal from MSHA also doesn't address the role of silica in the spike in miners' lung diseases in some places, Watzman said.
But Petsonk, the researcher from West Virginia University, said NIOSH has documented new cases of black lung in recent years in every state but New Mexico — not the outcome the nation was supposed to see under the 1969 law.
The current dust-control rules are not adequately protecting miners, Petsonk said.
"In fact, this is a national problem," Petsonk said in his presentation. "We have to do something or we're going to see more and more miners with end stage disease and death."
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1