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Proposed silica dust rules for coal mines may extend to sand, gravel quarries

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Black lung is an incurable, deadly disease that's on the rise, especially among coal miners in central Appalachia, where researchers estimate 1 in 5 will get black lung. Now, the federal government's considering tighter safety restrictions that include cutting silica dust limits in mines. But that's not all it would do. Justin Hicks of Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and Roxy Todd of Radio IQ in Virginia report on how the rules could affect more than just coal mines.

ROXY TODD, BYLINE: Eleven years ago, a doctor diagnosed coal miner Gary Cook with complicated black lung disease. Now he has to gasp for air just to speak.

GARY COOK: He said it would slowly eat my lungs up, and it's about got them.

TODD: Cook's disease comes from inhaling silica dust, which gets trapped in lungs. In recent years, miners have had to dig through more layers of rock to find coal, generating more deadly silica dust. Doctors in southwest Virginia, where Cook lives, are seeing more cases of the most advanced form of black lung, even among young miners. Drew Harris works at Stone Mountain Health Services.

DREW HARRIS: I'm 42 years old, and I have patients who are my age who are dying from black lung.

TODD: He says the tentative silica rule from the Department of Labor is a great start, but he criticizes the proposal for relying too heavily on companies to self-report dust levels. Miners tell him they're often told by their bosses to cheat.

HARRIS: I hear about these dishonest practices all the time when I talk with my Stone Mountain patients. And I'm not asking them to tell me these things. They just tell me these things.

TODD: Harris was speaking at a recent hearing for the new silica rule in Arlington, Va. He urged regulators to also drop language that would allow mine companies to keep workers in toxic environments. The proposal right now lets them do so temporarily as long as miners wear respirators.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: I'm just going to put it on so you can hear what it sounds like when I talk. It's so much harder to communicate underground.

TODD: He argues that miners won't wear respirators. They're also uncomfortable and hot. He wants mining companies to be required to clean up toxic environments instead.

JUSTIN HICKS, BYLINE: The guy in charge of regulating mines for the federal government is Chris Williamson.

CHRIS WILLIAMSON: This agency's mission is very clear, and it's not just focused on coal miners.

HICKS: He wants to include all U.S. mines in the new rule. Coal is only 10% of them. Those coal mines have to offer medical exams, and the new rule would extend that requirement to places like sand and gravel quarries, too.

WILLIAMSON: We're going to move forward. And, you know, I can't in good conscience leave any miners behind in this.

HICKS: But there are opponents of any new regulation. D.J. Schmutz owns a company that trains mine operators to follow safety rules. At the hearing in Arlington, he said smaller companies won't be able to bear the costs of additional dust testing and medical exams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D J SCHMUTZ: Every little community you go to, there is a sand and gravel pit of some sort because how else are they going to get their concrete? This will put small mines out of business as is currently written. There is no doubt in my mind.

HICKS: Federal regulations always take a while to finalize, and the feds say now is the time to speak up. People have until mid-September to weigh in.

TODD: While miners wait for new safety rules, Gary Hairston knows their health hangs in the balance. He's president of the National Black Lung Association and testified in front of federal regulators in West Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY HAIRSTON: What gets me so mad - we heard the coal companies say, we keep the light on. Guess what? It ain't the coal company keeping it on. It's the coal miners.

TODD: The Department of Labor will hold one more public hearing in Denver, Colo., today.

For NPR News, I'm Roxy Todd in Virginia.

HICKS: And I'm Justin Hicks in Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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