Federal regulators aim to fight black lung with new coal dust limits in mines

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 4:31 p.m.

The federal government on Wednesday said it would cut the amount of coal dust allowed in mines in an effort to prevent black lung disease, which has contributed to an estimated 76,000 miners' deaths since 1968.

“Today, we advance a very basic principle: you shouldn't have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood,” Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said.

He was among several administration leaders who announced the much-debated rule from the department's Mine Safety and Health Administration that was more than three years in the making. Mines have two years to comply with requirements that lower the overall limit for dust from 2 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air. For certain mine entries and miners with black lung disease, the standard will drop from 1.0 to 0.5.

The rule increases the frequency of dust sampling, requires mine operators to take immediate action when dust levels are high and requires new technology to monitor levels.

Union officials and several coal companies said they needed time to review the rule before they would share opinions.

“While Alpha fully supports protecting the health of miners, there were aspects of the initial proposals that we didn't fully agree with. Since we didn't see the final rule before its release, we'll have to study it to determine if those points were addressed,” said Steve Higginbottom, a spokesman for Bristol, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources, which operates 18 mines in Pennsylvania with about 2,000 employees here.

Murray Energy Corp. of St. Clairsville, Ohio, which runs 13 mines in six states, criticized the rule as another attack by the Obama administration on the coal industry. Murray called the rule unrealistic and expensive, claiming the administration ignored evidence that it wouldn't work. It threatened to sue.

MSHA estimated the cost to the coal industry at about $61 million in the first year and then less than $30 million annually. Lower medical bills could save a combined $37 million a year, the agency said.

A proposed rule in 2010 sought to cut the dust limit to 1 milligram per cubic meter of air. Some House Republicans and industry leaders fought that proposal. MSHA held seven public hearings, extended the comment period three times, and got about 2,000 pages of comments. A General Accountability Office review ordered by Congress found MSHA relied on solid research to determine that reducing the dust limit would cut the risk of miners' disease.

United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said the union would not comment until it analyzed the rule. But he called black lung “the scourge of the coalfields for over a century.”

“People shouldn't have to get an always-fatal disease just by going to work,” he said.

Black lung, which includes coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible disease caused by exposure to coal dust, where the dust particles accumulate in the lungs. Pennsylvania, the fourth-biggest producer of coal in the country, has felt its effects especially hard.

The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Pennsylvania had more black lung deaths — 3,838 from 1996 to 2005 — than any other state. Department of Labor data show the state had the highest number of compensation claims to the federal black lung program with more than 105,000 from 1973 to 2012, 10,000 more than the closest state, West Virginia.

Smith said ventilating mines to reduce dust is the best tool for combatting such lung diseases. Smaller mines in more narrow coal seams such as some in Pennsylvania are tougher to ventilate.

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 set the first dust limits and with other laws in the 1970s helped reduce black lung numbers cases. But they began to rebound several years ago.

“While this is a big step forward, it is by no means the end of our fight to eradicate this scourge of coal miners,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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