The coal miner's president: Trump moves to weaken black lung protections

Trump praised coal miners on the campaign trail, but hasn't been treating them well in office

By Matthew Rozsa
Published December 15, 2017 1:54PM (EST)
 (AP/Steve Helber)
(AP/Steve Helber)

President Donald Trump is considering weakening a regulation intended to protect the health of one of the demographics he has often claimed to care most about — America's coal miners.

A notice labeled "Regulatory Reform of Existing Standards and Regulations; Retrospective Study of Respirable Coal Mine Dust Rule" was published on Thursday by the White House for the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The stated purpose of the reevaluation would be to determine how a 2014 rule passed under President Barack Obama regulating coal miners' exposure to coal dust "could be improved or made more effective or less burdensome."

When the rule was first implemented, it utilized new technologies and increased sampling in mines so that workers would have real-time information about dust levels. This would in turn allow both the miners and operators to minimize the chances that workers would be overexposed to coal dust, which has caused an epidemic of black lung disease among coal miners.

In spite of a 1969 law that increased coal mine safety requirements, more than 76,000 coal miners throughout America died of black lung disease between 1968 and 2014. Many of those deaths occurred among coal miners whose entire mining careers took place after the 1969 law had taken effect.

In response to the announcement that the coal dust rule would be reevaluated, the National Mining Association released a statement saying, "While we’ve not had any discussions with the agency regarding the retrospective study, we think it might shed valuable information on operation of the rule since its promulgation and ways it might be improved to provide further protection for miners while eliminating unnecessary implementation requirements for operators."

Meanwhile a spokesman for mining company Murray Energy — whose owner, Bob Murray, was a major Trump backer in the 2016 election — released a statement saying that it is "pleased that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is reexamining the Obama administration’s Respirable Dust Rule, which fails to protect coal miners in any way."

Although coal mining has been on the decline in Appalachia over the past few years, that isn't as a result of Trump's policies. Part of that is something Trump can’t control. And part of it is something Trump doesn’t want to control. The chief struggle facing coal miners is that natural gas, solar and wind power can outcompete coal due to their low cost and abundance. Making matters worse for coal miners themselves, the coal mining jobs are often the best-paying ones in their area, and job retraining programs have a spotty track record of actually helping individuals who use them.

This latest policy undermines Trump's longstanding claim to be an ally of coal miners, which he bragged about when he pulled out of the Paris climate accord. "I happen to love the coal miners," Trump proclaimed at the time.

Trump may have let his true feelings about coal miners be known during a Playboy interview in 1990, however.

"The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son," Trump told Playboy. "If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination — or whatever — to leave their mine. They don’t have 'it.'"


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Black Lung Disease Coal Miners Donald Trump West Virginia