The United Mine Workers union isn’t saying yet if it’s pleased with the Obama administration’s final version of a rule aimed at reducing coal-dust exposure to protect miners from deadly black lung disease.
UMW President Cecil Roberts said union officials are reviewing the 991-page rule — Roberts called it “long, detailed and complex” — announced Wednesday by MSHA chief Joe Main and Main’s boss, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, at an event in Morgantown.
“We want to make sure we fully understand not just the theory behind the rule, but how it will be put into practical application in an actual working environment,” Roberts said in a prepared statement.
MSHA 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.
However, the final rule steps back from a 3 1/2-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.
Black lung, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, actually is 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.
“After the recent uptick in black lung cases among working miners, it became clear to us that either the allowable dust limits were too high, operators weren’t following the law, or the law wasn’t being enforced stringently enough,” Roberts said. “I have said previously that it is probably a combination of all those factors.”
The MSHA announcement received mixed reviews from political leaders.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the announcement marks “a truly historic day for coal miners in West Virginia and around the country.”
House Republican leaders said the MSHA rule emerged from “a flawed regulatory process” and that the final rule needs close review.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said, “While the details of the rule issued by [MSHA] . . . will be subject to much debate and scrutiny, the goal of the rule — to eliminate black lung — is one I support wholeheartedly.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.