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Even Team Trump found the price for helping the ‘beautiful’ coal industry was more than they could stomach

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David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston

Hard as it to believe, it appears that the Trump administration on Monday will actually do something right by workers.

It’s doing so after trying to save $11 million per year in construction and maritime costs to help one corner of a polluting industry that Trump calls beautiful: coal.

The price for those savings: two dead Americans a week, all of them blue-collar construction and maritime workers.

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It appears from a Labor Department notice issued last week that even the political termites who Team Trump set loose to eat away at the substance of our government found the butcher’s bill for helping the “beautiful” coal industry was more than they could stomach.

The issue involves industrial uses of beryllium, a strong and light metal used in everything from missiles to nuclear bomb casings.

In metallic form, there is no danger, but beryllium dust is deadly. Most beryllium dust comes from coal slag, which is used as an abrasive in air guns to blast paint and rust off ship hulls so they can be repainted.

A Deadly Disease

There is no cure for those who develop Chronic Beryllium Disease. The number of deaths among the 62,000 or so blue-collar workers exposed to beryllium dust has fallen sharply since the 1970s when better breathing masks and respirators were introduced.

The cost of the Obama safety rules, about $11 million, means that the Trump administration’s proposal, which appears to now be on its way to the dustbin of history, valued each blue-collar worker’s life lost at just $110,000.

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The dangers of beryllium dust have long been known. Rules to protect workers had been pending since 1945. You read that right – 1945.

Inaction of 11 Presidents

That means 11 American presidents, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, allowed this carnage. Only the Obama administration developed new rules and had them formally adopted just 11 days before his second term ended.

Soon after assuming office, Trump’s political termites at the Labor Department moved to undo the new safety rules.

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Because we pay attention to how Trump is using our government to harm workers we covered the issue as a case study of how Team Trump policies kill workers and in stories by our Sarah Okeson here, here and here.

Today the Trump administration is putting forth a policy that it appears will retain the Obama era safeguards. And if that is indeed what happens it will mean that in the future more than 100 Americans a year will live because they did not succumb to beryllium dust illness.

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a telephone conference call meeting today to discuss the issues which are outlined in a PowerPoint downloadable as a PDF file.

We use the cautionary qualifier “it appears” because the official notices are far from complete. They also cover only construction, not maritime trades. However, it would be illogical to continue the Obama era rules for construction only.

We’ll keep you posted as the issue develops.

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