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MSHA rule cuts miners’ coal dust exposure

The Obama administration on Wednesday finalized a long-awaited rule aimed at protecting coal miners from black lung by reducing their exposure to dust that causes the deadly disease.

U.S. Department of Labor officials say the new rule will lower legal dust-exposure limits, close loopholes and improve sampling practices. The changes are part of the agency’s broad effort to end a disease that continues to kill miners, more than four decades after a federal law made eliminating such deaths a national priority.

“Working should never be a death sentence in America,” Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez told reporters.

Officials said the final rule will increase sampling in mines and make use of new technology to provide real-time information about dust levels, allowing miners and coal operators to make adjustments, instead of letting overexposures continue. The rule will be phased in over a two-year period “to give the industry the time it needs to adjust to the new requirements,” the Labor Department said.

“We are finally moving forward to overhaul an outdated program that has failed to adequately protect miners from breathing unhealthy levels of coal mine dust and achieving the intent of Congress to eliminate black lung disease,” said Joe Main, director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Perez and Main announced the new rule at an event in Morgantown, just two days after the final rule emerged from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, where it had been undergoing an economic review since last August.

OMB officials met late last year with officials from various coal companies, including Murray Energy and Alpha Natural Resources, as well as with the United Mine Workers union, to discuss the proposed rule.

The final rule steps back from a 31/2-year-old proposal that would have slashed the legal dust limit in half, from 2.0 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air to 1.0 milligram per cubic meter. After intense opposition from the coal industry and congressional Republicans, the final rule sets the dust limit at 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter, according to a summary included in a Labor Department news release.

In doing so, the administration went against long-standing recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which, in 1995, urged a 1.0 milligram standard. The miners union, health advocates and public-health experts also backed the 1.0-milligram standard.

“The rule is certainly a step in the right direction, but the administration’s decision to weaken what they’d proposed in 2010 makes the goal of eliminating black lung out of reach,” said Celeste Monforton, a public-health researcher and former MSHA staffer who has followed the issue closely.

UMW spokesman Phil Smith declined comment Wednesday, saying the union wants to “thoroughly understand” the rule — announced in a 991-page document — before commenting on it.

The National Mining Association criticized the final rule as “a less effective one-size-fits-all nationwide approach” to what the industry says is a problem “clustered in isolated geographical areas.” Murray Energy, which operates large underground mines in Northern West Virginia, issued a statement vowing to challenge MSHA in court, saying the rule “seeks to destroy the coal industry, and the thousands of jobs it provides, with absolutely no benefit to the health or safety of miners, whatsoever.”

Black lung, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is actually a collection of debilitating and potentially fatal ailments caused by breathing coal dust.

Miners inhale tiny dust particles that are released into the air by coal-cutting machines. As the dust collects over time, lungs become black, scarred and shriveled. Miners often develop a cough, or shortness of breath. Frequently, as the most serious and fatal forms of the disease progress, miners have to fight for every breath.

In 1969, when it passed landmark mine safety legislation, Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal. The law required mine operators to take steps to limit exposure. Black lung was reduced significantly, but — at least in part because of industry cheating on dust samples — the law has fallen far short of its goals.

Since 1968, 76,000 coal miners nationwide have died from black lung. And researchers have warned of a resurgence of the disease, especially in pockets of the Appalachian coalfields, affecting younger miners whose entire careers took place after the 1969 law’s dust limits went into effect.

Efforts to tighten the legal dust limits and otherwise protect miners, though, have been stalled by a quarter-century of inaction by administrations from both political parties. During the Clinton administration, for example, a proposal to reform the dust sampling and enforcement program died, in part, because Main, then the top safety official for the UMW, complained that it didn’t go far enough.

Under Obama, Main’s efforts to enact a new dust rule have been hampered by Republican-pushed legislation to temporarily block the rule and by delays within the Labor Department itself.

The proposed rule, issued in October 2010, would have reduced the legal dust limit to 1.7 milligrams per cubic meter in six months, to 1.5 in 12 months and to 1.0 in two years. The adopted rule would simply reduce the legal dust limit to 1.5 milligrams, effective in August 2016.

Perez and Main, when pressed to explain the scientific basis for their new number, hedged and provided no clear answer. Each said reporters were focusing too much on that issue without considering other parts of the rule that would help reduce miners’ exposure.

“Lowering the permissible concentration of dust is an important part of what we’re doing with this rule,” Perez said, “but if we did that, and that alone, this rule would have minimal impact on worker safety.”

Perez pointed to requirements for more frequent dust sampling, the use of technology that can help prevent the widespread cheating that has hampered past enforcement efforts, and a change to prevent operators from averaging samples to make miner exposure appear lower than it really is during any single shift.

“What people are missing is all of these flaws and loopholes,” Main said. “If you don’t fix those, it doesn’t make any difference what you set the standard at.”

In the rule-making notice made public Wednesday, MSHA said agency officials had concluded that “additional sampling and experience may be warranted” while other provisions of the rule are implemented “before considering a standard lower” than 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter.

Dr. Robert Cohen, a black lung expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the change to the 1.5-standard might have been part of an MSHA effort to compromise, to avoid industry lawsuits challenging the entire rule. Cohen said he was especially pleased that the final rule expands the government’s black lung surveillance program to include surface mine workers, rather than just underground miners, and to include lung-function tests, rather than only X-rays.

“I like a lot of the stuff in this rule,” Cohen said. “It’s a huge step forward.”

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