Mine Safety Administration Orders First Reduction in Level of Disease-Causing Dust Since 1969

Friday, April 25, 2014
(photo: Les Stone, Greenpeace)

Labor and mine-safety officials in the Obama administration have adopted significant new rules for coal mining operations aimed at curbing exposure to dust that causes black lung disease.


Characterized as the most important changes since the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, the regulations require companies to provide workers with new technology known as personal dust monitors that warn when the coal dust around them reaches harmful levels.


The rules also call for reducing the amount of disease-causing dust in mines, and eliminate loopholes in federal law that allowed companies to risk workers’ health. Additionally, more frequent dust sampling will be required in high-risk areas, and changes will be enacted to bring about a more accurate calculation of the dust levels.


“This is a historical day for coal miners in this country,” Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said during a press conference that included numerous former miners suffering from black lung. “We’re issuing a new rule that’s going to change your lives.”


Main’s office, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), says a resurgence of the disease in recent years prompted the government to develop the new rules. Incidents of black lung steadily declined from the 1970s to the late 1990s, when the number of new medical cases began to rise.


Overall, black lung (known medically as pneumoconiosis) killed at least 75,000 American from 1967 to 2007, according to the Center for Public Integrity.


The new limit on coal dust in mines represents the first reduction since the level was established by the 1969 law. Efforts to achieve reform of industry regulation have been ongoing since the 1990s.


The MSHA did not go as far as it originally intended in setting the new limit. Its original draft regulations called for trimming the level by half. Instead, the agency settled on a one quarter reduction after receiving complaints from industry. It is also allowing the new regulations to be phased in over a two-year period.


“This rule demonstrates that we heard the concerns from the industry,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez said after the announcement.


Still, the National Mining Association, the industry’s lobbying group, complained about the new requirements, claiming companies won’t be able to meet the new standards with existing technologies.


One of the country’s biggest coal companies, Murray Energy Corp., immediately attacked the rule and threatened to sue the Department of Labor. Company owner Robert Murray called it “disastrous” and “politically motivated,” and claimed it will “destroy jobs.”


“I think we are making history here, but you have to watch us,” Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), a longtime advocate for miner safety, said in a speech. “It’s one thing to make an announcement. It’s another thing to make it work… The coal companies will fight this with everything they have.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

U.S. Announces Sweeping Reforms to Protect Coal Miners from Black Lung Disease (by Chris Hamby, Center for Public Integrity)

Obama Labor Department Tightens Black Lung Rules Decades In The Making (by Dave Jamieson, Huffington Post)

Black Lung Disease Spurs New Coal-Mine Rules (by Kris Maher, Wall Street Journal)

Mostly Forgotten, Black Lung Still Causes Two Deaths a Day (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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