Agency delays regulations to reduce coal miners’ exposure to coal dust
James R. Carroll, Louisville Courier-Journal
WASHINGTON — Mine safety advocates are angry that federal regulators missed a June deadline to issue final regulations for reducing miners’ exposure to coal dust.
“Whatever the reason for the delay in issuing new regulations to protect miners from black lung, it is intolerable,” said Stephen Sanders, director of the nonprofit Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which represents miners and their families in black lung and mine safety cases.
“The coal mining industry needs to protect its workers from black lung,” he said, referring to the deadly disease caused by persistent exposure to high coal-dust levels.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is now scheduled to issue the final regulations in September. The agency’s latest regulatory schedule does not explain the 90-day delay.
MSHA chief Joseph Main, chief of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, also offered no explanation for the delay.
The mining industry disputed those findings.
Excessive levels of coal dust also are an explosion hazard.
Phil Smith, spokesman for United Mine Workers of America, said, “We continue to urge the agency to move forward as fast as possible with a rule that protects miners’ health and safety, for lives are on the line.”
History of delays
Postponements of the final release of federal regulations are not unusual, but the path of coal-dust rules has been particularly long and tortuous.
New rules to reduce coal-dust exposure have been proposed and dropped numerous times in the past two decades.
In 1995, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended that dust exposure levels for miners be reduced.
Delays followed, and a month after Barack Obama became president in 2009, MSHA announced that it would not begin looking at a new rule until 2011.
MSHA actually notified the public it had begun work on the coal-dust regulations in late 2010, and it collected comments from the industry, safety advocates and other interested parties through mid-2011.
And in July 2012, over the objection of Democrats, Republican lawmakers inserted language into a spending bill delaying the coal-dust rule until the GAO could evaluate the data upon which the rule was based.
In August 2012, the GAO concluded that multiple studies “support the conclusions that lowering (dust limits) … would reduce miners’ risk of disease.”
Sanders said “a generation of coal miners has worked since 1995, breathing in excessive dust” because of the inaction.
Kentucky miners afflicted
Kentucky had 12,071 underground coal miners in 2011, the nation’s second-largest number behind West Virginia’s 16,963 miners, according to the National Mining Association.
And the CDC’s occupational safety institute has found that among Kentucky miners medically examined between 2005 and 2009, 9 percent were diagnosed with black lung disease.
Under MSHA’s rule, proposed in October 2010, concentration limits for respirable coal mine dust would be cut from 2 milligrams per cubic liter of air to 1 milligram, to be phased in over two years.
Miners also would be required to wear dust monitors that would provide instant readings, the way dust is measured would be changed, and additional medical examinations of miners would be required.
“It’s been two years since the public comment period closed on MSHA’s proposed rule,” Monforton said. “That’s more than enough time to finalize rules that have been endlessly discussed.”
She noted that Vice President Joe Biden, MSHA and its parent agency, the Department of Labor, all have said the rules are a priority.
“I’m waiting for the administration to stick by those words with concrete action and finalize these rules,” Monforton said.
“Every day that passes without stricter dust controls means there’ll be another generation of miners who’ll suffer black lung and other respiratory diseases,” she said.
In a statement, he said that “the rule-making process on the dust rule is still moving forward.”
Through a spokeswoman, the agency also declined a request for an interview.
The National Mining Association, which represents the coal industry, declined to comment on the delay.
Celeste Monforton, professor at the School of Public Health & Health Services at George Washington University, said every month the regulations are held up “has real consequences for miners’ health.”
Black lung disease has caused or contributed to the deaths of more than 75,000 coal miners since 1968, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Reports also show a doubling of black lung cases in the past 10 years. And an investigation by National Public Radio, the Center for Public Integrity and The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette show the number of miners with advanced stages of black lung disease has quadrupled since the 1980s.
Black lung cases
Failure to toughen coal-dust limits was one reason for the increase in black lung cases, the investigation found, adding that lax enforcement of current rules and cheating by coal operators also were factors.