The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Attempt to force coal miners to breathe more deadly dust

Aug 11, 2003

Early in March, the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued proposed rules concerning miners' exposure to coal dust in the air. Since then, the United Mine Workers and the Black Lung Association have been testifying against the proposals, saying the new rules would mean a major setback on miners' safety.

The proposed rules would destroy the standard on the legal amount of coal dust in the air set by the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, establishing a level four times as high. The proposal would substitute individual respirators – which work poorly, if at all, for equipment that actually reduces dust levels in the air. It would eliminate the frequency of dust sampling as much as 90% at some mines. The proposal would also allow dust samplers to be shut down while miners are still doing work, allowing coal companies to get away with what they want during these hours.

This battle over coal mine dust has been going since the late 1960s, when miners organized to fight black lung disease. At one point 40,000 West Virginia miners were on strike, demanding controls over coal dust. The result was the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

From that point on administrations chipped away at requirements written into the law. The Nixon Administration, which decided in 1972, for example, that it wasn't necessary to sample for dust throughout a work shift. For the next 23 years the mine workers fought that ruling, during the years of the Carter, Reagan and the first Bush administrations. Finally, in January 2000, the UMW took the Clinton administration to court, demanding that it act. The Clinton Administration finally issued rules on July 7, 2000.

Cecil Roberts, the head of the UMW, said about them, "The rules are inadequate. Although they would upgrade the coal dust verification plans and make some improvements in measuring miners' coal dust exposure for their entire shift, the rules undercut, and in some cases, strip away the protections miners currently have. For example, the compliance sampling standards would be eliminated. Miners' dust exposure levels would be increased and the frequency of sampling would be reduced substantially."

Now, the Bush administration is picking up where Clinton left off – making it easier for mine owners to violate the 1969 and 1977 acts – condemning the miners to an even earlier death.

The miners can't wait on Congress to protect their lives. The type of mass struggles that the miners organized to push through the mine safety act and continued direct vigilance in the mines are what can save miners' lungs.