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Coal miners speak out in support of strengthened silica dust exposure standards

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For as long as people have gone down into coal mines, severe lung disease from silica dust has destroyed lives. This week, in the heart of Appalachian coal country, miners pleaded with regulators to crack down. NPR's Robert Benincasa reports.

ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: Former coal miner Terry Lilly sat down in front of the panel of federal regulators and struggled to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRY LILLY: My name's Terry Lilly. T-E-R-R-Y L-I-L-L-Y.

BENINCASA: With his words punctuated by gulps of air, Lilly talked about the deception he had seen mine operators engage in to trick regulators over 30 years in the industry. That includes cheating on dust samples.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LILLY: Excuse me, I have trouble breathing. I'm at 40% of my lung capacity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I understand.

LILLY: And I'm as guilty as any of them for hiding dust samples. Cheating the samples is what we need to stop. If we could stop this, we could save some lives.

BENINCASA: Lilly and others showed up at a hearing in Beckley, W. Va., to tell the federal government to put mine operators on a tighter leash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAM PETSONK: The only thing that mining companies understand is money. They don't understand or appreciate the blood and the lives of miners because if they did, they would have protected miners willingly over the last several decades.

BENINCASA: That's West Virginia labor lawyer Sam Petsonk testifying before the Department of Labor panel on a proposed rule that would limit the amount of dangerous silica dust in the air in coal and other mines. Petsonk, who represents miners in black lung cases, told regulators the rules should require more air monitoring and should contain specifics about citations and fines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETSONK: A rule with no penalties is no rule at all.

BENINCASA: But panel moderator Patricia Silvey said the rule would require mines to correct high silica levels and would allow for citations. In coal mines, silica dust gets into the air when machines cut into layers of rock that surround coal deposits. As coal deposits have been mined out over decades, there has been more rock cut and more silica dust in the air. Those tiny particles can lodge in the lungs permanently and cause a severe form of black lung disease. The proposed rule would directly regulate silica for the first time. One controversial part of the rule would allow mine operators who do have high silica levels to continue having their employees work in those hazardous areas while wearing a respirator mask.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEONARD GO: Respirators are effectively a Band-Aid in the situation, but they're an ineffective and impractical solution when dust levels are high.

BENINCASA: That's Dr. Leonard Go, a University of Illinois pulmonologist. Go looked around the room and saw a lot of coal miners and their beards. Those beards get in the way of respirators. So does a hot, loud and strenuous work environment where miners tend to take off their respirators to talk or to take a breath. As for Lilly, he says he often talks to younger miners and warns them about the dangers they face.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LILLY: It's too late for me, but I'd like these young people to realize they need to wake up. One of these days they'll be like me. You can't walk across the parking lot.

BENINCASA: Regulators will hold a third and final hearing about the proposed silica rule in Denver later this month.

Robert Benincasa, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Benincasa is a computer-assisted reporting producer in NPR's Investigations Unit.