US House Subcommittee Votes to Withhold Funding for Silica Dust Enforcement That Protects Miners

A subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to advance legislation that would defund the Labor Department to enforce a modern rule designed to protect miners from contracting black lung disease.

Billwhich will transfer funds to the Department of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, specifically states that no portion of that money can be used to enforce a recently announced rule limiting allowable levels of silica dust in mines.

The rule was published by the Department of Labor and would reduce the allowable level of airborne silica dust in mines by half to 50 milligrams per cubic meter of air. It also sets standards for mine operators to monitor air for silica dust and requires action when levels exceed the modern threshold.

Silica dust has long been known to cause the most severe cases of black lung disease, and advocates have been calling for regulation of silica dust levels in mines for years.

Announcing the rule in Uniontown in April, Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su said she expected the rule to “save over a thousand lives and prevent serious illness in thousands more.”

Because no funding has been allocated to enforce this rule, it is unclear whether it will be implemented at all.

“The way it’s written, it sounds like it would prohibit MSHA from doing a lot of silica monitoring because the silica regulation is silica monitoring,” said Quenton King, a federal legislative specialist with Appalachian Voices, an environmental group focused on the Appalachian region. “There’s nothing in the regulation that you can do anymore.”

The language in the current budget bill is similar to language proposed by Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry (R-10 District) during last year’s budget negotiations.

Although only a draft of the rule was made available at the time, Perry introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2023 budget bill that would defund any efforts to enforce it.

“He set a precedent,” King said. “Which is really unfortunate because Pennsylvania has a long history of mining and supporting coal.”

Ultimately, Perry’s amendment was not included in the final bill. House Republicans ultimately rejected that appropriations bill in a fight that led in part to the ouster of then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.). Provisions defunding the enforcement of silica dust regulations have been forgotten.

There are still many opportunities to change the silica dust provisions in the budget bill, which will ultimately transfer the funds to the federal government.

The bill was passed by a subcommittee of the larger House Appropriations Committee. It will need to be approved by the full committee and then by the House itself before being forwarded to the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.

“This is an insult to the miners who risked their lives and their long-term health to power our factories and heat our homes,” Senator Bob Casey (R-PA). “I’m going to make damn sure we continue this funding so we can keep our promise to black lung disease miners and their families.”

Casey chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He is also the sponsor of the bill that escalate benefits for miners who get pneumoconiosisand has been an dynamic supporter of modern silica dust standards.

“I’m optimistic,” King said of the amendment’s chances in the Senate. “But there’s always a chance the Senate will agree to it.”

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