The Mine Safety and Health Administration is not doing enough to protect coal miners from deadly silica dust, according to a new report from the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General. The IG found that MSHA’s standards for exposure to deadly silica dust were out of date, and MSHA lacked the ability to issue fines when coal companies violate air quality standards. The IG also said the mine safety agency’s sampling methods were too infrequent to guarantee that miners were protected. 

The report comes after years of increased scrutiny following reporting from NPR and the Ohio Valley ReSource that found clusters of advanced black lung disease among Appalachian coal miners. 

“They’ve finally admitted that they know now that they need to do more testing, and that they need to regulate silica dust, and that there’s a direct correlation between coal dust and silica,” said black lung rehab director Marcy Martinez. “I really think it’s going to be different this time.” 

The average time it takes for federal agencies to implement a rule change is four years, the report said, but MSHA has spent 20 years studying a rule change that would help protect coal miners from deadly silica dust. 

MSHA’s current standards for silica have not substantively changed in over 50 years, the report found, despite growing consensus that silica, also known as respirable quartz dust, is a major contributor to a surge in black lung disease that’s centered in the Ohio Valley. 

According to the report, the agency gestured towards making a change in 1996, 1998, 2003, 2010 and 2014 amid growing pressure from stakeholders, with no substantive change implemented in any of those efforts. MSHA again initiated the rulemaking process in August of 2019 with a request for information and has since said it would publish a proposed rule, but has not provided a timeframe for that announcement. 

“All MSHA is doing is saying, ‘We are aware of these cases, there’s a suggestion that it’s related to silica, so tell us what you think about this, let us know if you have any ideas,’” Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA regulator and now an outspoken critic of her former agency, said of the 2019 effort.

In 2014, MSHA did institute a rule that reduced the limit on exposure to coal dust, of which silica is a component, from 2.0 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air. That rule has significantly lowered incidences of high silica exposure, with the percent of samples that exceeded the recommended silica levels falling from 57% in 1990 to 6% in 2019. “This shows that coal mines have and can meet the recommended silica limit,” the OIG said in the report. 

The report continued, “With no legal requirement for mines to keep silica levels well below MSHA’s current limit, which scientific evidence has shown to be unsafe, workers in coal mines with silica levels above recommended safety limits continue to be at risk of developing life threatening health problems.”

MSHA head David Zatezelo, a former coal company executive appointed by President Donald Trump, was slow to agree with the scientific consensus on silica’s role in the black lung epidemic, though he acknowledged it in a June, 2019 hearing in Congress. In the same hearing, Zatezelo argued that because it takes decades for a miner exposed to silica dust to manifest the symptoms of black lung disease, the agency could not take further regulatory action until the results of the 2014 rule change could be analyzed. 

“But MSHA anticipates the study will confirm that dramatic increases in sampling and compliance translate into reduced black lung incidence going forward,” he said. 

In a written response to the Inspector General’s report, Zatezelo disagreed with the recommendation that MSHA adopt a lower silica exposure standard, saying that because the rulemaking process was ongoing, he was not able to comment on the proposed substance of a potential new rule. 

The DOL report also urged MSHA to increase the frequency of silica sampling, saying, “Silica levels … fluctuate frequently and unpredictably. Changes in geology and movement of personnel within mines mean that miners’ exposure to silica may change on a daily, if not hourly basis. As a result, MSHA’s infrequent sampling protocols —  two or four times a year —  placed miners at unnecessary risk for silica exposure.”

Zatezelo agreed to study that recommendation.