Feds unveil stricter coal dust standards

In a long-awaited decision, federal labor and mining officials unveiled new standards for the amount of breathable coal dust permitted in mines and other regulations aimed at ending black lung disease.

U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Mine and Health Safety Administration official Joe Main and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Director John Howard made the announcement Wednesday morning in Morgantown.

“Today we advance a very basic principle: you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood. But that’s been the fate of more than 76,000 miners who have died at least in part because of black lung since 1968,” Perez said in a news release.

“I believe we can have both healthy miners and a thriving coal industry. The nation made a promise to American miners when we passed the Coal Act in 1969 — with today’s rule we’re making good on that promise.”

The final 991-page rule adopts a portion of the proposal that called for cutting the amount of breathable coal dust concentration limits in half. Instead of cutting the allowable amount in half — from 2 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air to 1 — the final rule instead met in the middle at 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter.

It does cut the standard for “certain mine entries” and miners who already have black lung from 1 milligram per cubic meter to 0.5.

The proposed rule also requires more testing from mines for dust levels, immediate action by the mining companies when dust levels are too high, more medical monitoring of miners and technology to test for dust levels in real time. The real-time technology, continuous personal dust monitors, must be worn “by miners in high-risk occupations,” according to an MSHA fact sheet about the rule.

The rules will be phased in over a two-year period.

It’s been four years since MSHA issued the proposed rule change. Displeasure from industry and study requests from Congress have delayed any final action on the rule since its 2010 introduction.

“We probably all would have liked to move faster, but you’ve got to be careful when you’re getting to regulatory processes like this,” Main told the Associated Press.

“Getting it right was very important.”

Although Main noted the administration’s “careful consideration” in crafting the final rule, industry officials continued to voice displeasure with the final rule Wednesday.

In a statement, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said the organization was disappointed MSHA “ignored” scientific evidence in crafting the rule.

“Rather than follow the evidence with a focused response, MSHA has unfortunately decided to proceed with a less effective one-size-fits-all nationwide approach,” Quinn said in a statement.

Murray Energy Corp., one of the nation’s largest coal companies, announced Wednesday it plans to file a lawsuit against the administration for creating a rule that “clearly seeks to destroy the coal industry.”

In addition to echoing Quinn’s statements, a news release from Murray says the new dust standards in the rule present drastic new costs.

“Our experts indicate that the cost of work stoppages alone, caused by the rule, will cost our nation billions of dollars per year,” the announcement states.

“This 1.5 mg/m3 mandate will close mines, bankrupt coal companies, and destroy the lives and livelihoods of thousands of coal miners, without protecting the health or safety of our miners.”

The coal industry has repeatedly cited what it considers unrealistic costs and the infeasibility of implementing new technology in decrying new standards from MSHA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller was the most outspoken West Virginia elected official in his support for the new rule. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the rule change marked an historic day for coal miners across the state and country.

“While this is a big step forward, it is by no means the end of our fight to eradicate this scourge of coal miners,” Rockefeller said in a statement.

“And, just as important is our effort to provide health care and financial support to those who are already suffering. I’ll do all I can to make sure these miners and their families get the benefits they need and so rightfully deserve.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., did not specifically say how he felt about the rule in a statement issued Wednesday. While mentioning fighting black lung as a priority, he said he looked forward to working with MSHA on the “most effective way” to combat the disease.

Rep. Nick Rahall similarly stayed away from applauding the change. The coalfield Democrat said he supported the goal of eradicating black lung, but said the details of the rule “will be subject to much debate and strict scrutiny.”

West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney and a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America did not respond to requests for comment.

More West Virginia miners were diagnosed with black lung than miners in any other state from 1970 to 2009, with the problem amplifying notably in recent years.

Rockefeller, Manchin, Rahall and other officials are also fighting a $900,000 funding cap placed on black lung grant applications. While the state could receive more black lung grant funding than ever, requiring two applications means more administrative work and the possibility for one of the applications to fail, some officials argued.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.

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