Coal dust disables and kills. We’ve known that even before 1969, when the federal coal-mine safety law was first passed. We know what causes black lung, and we know what steps can be taken to protect workers from falling prey to it. You would think that given all that knowledge and technology, black lung disease would have been eradicated by now.

Disturbingly, the opposite is true.

According to an investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, National Public Radio, and the Charleston Gazette, black lung diagnoses have actually  doubled in the past decade, affecting even young miners who have not been working underground for many years at all.

So what’s going on? Part of the problem is that the current rules allow mining companies to conduct a “do-over” if federal mine inspectors find exposure levels that are higher than acceptable. The company is allowed to collect their own dust samples, and if the levels fall below the limit when the company reports its own data, the violation is waived.

How very convenient. Is it any wonder, then, that federal mine inspectors sometimes report 40 percent more coal dust exposure than the mining companies themselves?

Moreover, investigators were able to identify possible explanations for the discrepancy: Workers reported “routinely” placing dust measurement devices inside of lunch boxes, under clothing, or even in fresh air returns — and some said they did so because they were told to by their superiors and they feared losing their jobs. In today’s climate, where layoffs of coal miners occur regularly, that’s a reasonable fear.

It’s not realistic to expect vulnerable coal miners to insist that their employers observe safety regulations. And although the Mine Safety and Health Administration wants to cut the coal dust standards in half, I’m not convinced that’s the answer, either. If violations at higher dust concentrations are not currently enforced, what makes anybody think that violations of more stringent standards would be enforced any more rigorously?

So what is the answer to the black lung crisis? There are a few simple steps we could take that would go a long way in addressing the problem: First and foremost, stop letting the coal companies — who are chafing against the regulations to begin with — report their own dust sampling data to determine if the regulations are being complied with. There’s simply too much opportunity, and temptation, for companies to massage their data to suggest compliance.

Second, if companies are found in violation of the coal dust standards, enforce those violations. MSHA needs to stop granting extensions when violations are found that allow unsafe coal dust levels to persist for weeks, or even months, before being corrected.

Last, increasing the fines for violations of coal dust standards may convince coal companies that complying with the regulations is more cost-effective than breaking them. And if we directed the increased revenues from fines to help pay for the health care costs of black lung victims, it’s a win-win situation.

The average person takes 20,000 breaths a day. Most of us take those breaths for granted. Coal miners deserve this, too.

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