Fatal Disease Outbreak Among Miners Spurs House Hearings On Coal Mine Dust

Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, in Aug. 2015.

Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, in Aug. 2015. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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December 18, 2018

The incoming chairman of the congressional committee that oversees workplace regulations said Tuesday he will hold hearings next year in response to an NPR and FRONTLINE investigation that revealed the failure of government regulators to identify and prevent a fatal disease outbreak among coal miners.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the investigation “reveals how coal executives, regulators, and policymakers have failed coal miners and their families.”

Scott is expected to become chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in the next Congress.

In stories published Tuesday and broadcast on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, NPR and FRONTLINE reported that federal regulators and the mining industry knew more than 20 years ago that toxic silica dust in coal mines was leading to severe and fatal lung disease. But no administration then or since has imposed direct and tougher regulation of silica dust.

“Congress has no choice but to step in and direct MSHA (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) and the mining industry to take timely action,” Scott said in a statement.

MSHA didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday night.

A spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, the industry’s leading trade group, said NMA hopes new dust control regulations that took full effect in 2016 “reverses the trend examined in your report.”

Ashley Burke also said NMA wants mandatory black lung testing for all coal miners and more flexibility in using protective devices like special helmets.

Coal miner Danny Smith, who is featured in the NPR investigation and suffers from advanced black lung disease, said he’s astonished at the news of the hearings.

“It’s just absolutely wonderful for all of us,” he said, from a holiday gathering at a pulmonary rehabilitation clinic in South Williamson, Ky. “At least they’re taking notice that there is a problem,” he said. “It’s great. It’s wonderful.”

Scott said he’s calling the hearings “to forge legislative solutions so that we can prevent the physical, emotional, and financial toll of this completely preventable disease.”

This story is part of a joint investigation with NPR, which includes an upcoming documentary Coal’s Deadly Dust, scheduled to air Jan. 22 on PBS. Watch the trailer below:

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