Fighting for Justice in the Coalfields

New coal dust regulations take effect after long fight for safer mines

The past week has been a historic week in decades of efforts that Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center has been involved with to end black lung in America’s coal miners.

First, on January 25th, federal judges upheld the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s 2014 dust rule against an industry challenge. In this ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals held that MSHA followed the proper procedures and that the rule was a reasonable exercise of the agency’s authority to protect coal miners against black lung.

Second, beginning on February 1st, the next phase of the dust rule comes into effect. Coal operators will be required to equip the miners who work in the dustiest jobs with continuous personal dust monitors (CPDMs)—devices that will gives the miners real-time information about their dust exposure. The CPDM allows miners to know how much respirable dust they are working in so that they can reduce their exposure and it also creates a digital record that will make it harder for companies to cheat the samples.

Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center has long represented miners in advocating for the policy change resulting in the dust rule. Even before the current rule, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center repeatedly petitioned the federal government to fulfill the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969’s promise that a miner should have the right “to work underground during his entire working life without incurring any disability from pneumoconiosis.”

In September 2009, the Law Center filed a petition on behalf of Scott Howard—a working coal miner from Letcher County, Kentucky—to reduce the levels of respirable coal-mine dust. MSHA granted this petition, publishing its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in October 2010.

Following the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center stayed engaged in the process, successfully arguing for a hearing to take place in Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields, working with coal miners and their families to submit comments regarding the rule, and informing the media about why a strong dust rule is needed.

Credit for the new rule rightfully goes to Joe Main (the head of MSHA under President Obama). Many others played significant parts in this effort, including doctors whose research and investigation provided the basis for the rule and countless coal miners, wives and widows who organized themselves through their black lung associations and union and demanded action to eliminate this wholly preventable occupational disease. Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center is proud to have had a role advocating for an effective dust rule and raising public awareness of the rule’s importance.

The dust rule was finalized at a hard time in the Appalachian coalfields. Coal jobs have been in a sharp decline and miners are suffering from an unprecedented upsurge in the rate of black lung. The dust rule will not bring back coal jobs, but as the Court of Appeals held, it will not threaten the industry. What the dust rule means is that miners will be working in less dust than at any point in American history and miners will be equipped with a device that will empower them to know the level of dust where they are working and to refuse to work if the level is unsafe. The rule is overdue, but it is certainly significant progress. Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center is proud to have played a role in making coal mines safer.

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