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GAO backs science on MSHA black lung rule

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal regulators used appropriate science about the potential risks of coal miners developing black lung when they drew up a proposal to cut in half the legal limit on exposure to dust that causes the deadly disease, a second U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the rule-making has found.

The new GAO report, released Wednesday, dismissed coal industry complaints that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had misused recent data on the trends in black lung prevalence in developing its draft rule, which was proposed in October 2010 and has been stuck at the White House since August 2013. GAO said that MSHA based its proposal to cut legal dust limits from 2 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air to 1 milligram per cubic meter on two reports and six epidemiological studies that concluded lowering the dust exposure limit would reduce miners’ risk of developing black lung.

“MSHA’s proposed coal mine dust limit was supported by these reports and studies because, unlike recent [black lung] trend data, they included information needed to conduct a reliable epidemiological analysis of disease risks associated with different levels of exposure to coal dust,” the GAO report said.

Black lung, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust. One goal of the 1969 federal coal-mine safety law was to eliminate the disease. Deaths declined for years, but experts have been warning since the 1990s that the dust limits needed to be tightened. Despite improvements since the law was passed, black lung has claimed the lives of 75,000 coal miners nationwide since 1968.

MSHA, under the direction of former United Mine Workers safety director Joe Main, has repeatedly pushed back its time line for finalizing its 2010 proposal to test the dust limits. And the proposal was further delayed by a budget measure pushed by congressional Republicans, which delayed any MSHA action until GAO performed an analysis of the issue.

GAO issued that mandated report in August 2012, concluding the science behind MSHA’s proposal was sound. Still, the rule has languished, first at the Department of Labor, MSHA’s parent agency, and now at the White House Office of Management and Budget. Reps. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Jack Kingston, R-Ga., asked for a second GAO study, but that request was not attached to any budget language that would have tied MSHA’s hands in finalizing the rule.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has written directly to President Obama to urge that the rule be quickly finalized, and last year also pushed OMB Director and West Virginia native Sylvia Mathews Burwell to ensure the rule was quickly moved through OMB’s review process. On Friday, Obama nominated Burwell to become secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Between 1996 and 2005, nearly 10,000 coal miners nationwide died of black lung, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. West Virginia recorded the second-highest black lung deaths of any state, with more than 1,000 during that period, according to NIOSH.

As part of its review, the GAO convened a panel of experts that reported there are various approaches, including better ventilation and water sprays, that could incrementally reduce overall coal mine dust levels, as well as individual miners’ exposure to dust.

“The experts also said that no one technology or approach would result in substantially lower dust levels, but instead could have a cumulative impact if used together,” the GAO report said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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