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Federal regulators hear criticisms on rule to reduce deadly mine dust

A man sitting behind a microphone demonstrates what it looks like to affix a breathing regulator to his face. He's speaking to regulators who have the power to change mine safety rules.
Justin Hicks
Dr. Drew Harris, medical director of a black lung clinic in Virginia, demonstrates to a panel of mine regulators why the temporary use of respirators may not fully protect mine workers as proposed in the rule.

Mine advocates and companies commented in Washington, D.C. this week, expressing lots of different concerns. If passed, the new rules would attempt to keep mine workers, including coal miners in Kentucky, safer while they work.

Federal mine regulators at the Mine Safety and Health Administration held the first of three hearings on Thursday to gather comments on recently proposed safety regulations. The regulation would affect every mine, cement plant, and rock quarry in the country regardless of the material produced there. It would add protections for non-coal workers like requiring companies to offer free medical exams while cutting in half the amount of toxic silica dust all miners can legally be exposed to.

Although lung disease attributed to silica dust seems to be most pronounced in Central Appalachia, where coal mining is largely waning, the rule increases protective measures for all mines.

“What currently exists is not protective enough,” Chris Williamson, MSHA assistant secretary, said in an interview. “It does not live up to what the Mine Act expects. Our statue and this agency’s mission is very clear and it’s not just focused on coal miners…We’re going to move forward and I can’t in good conscience leave any miners behind in this.”

At the hearing, lung doctors and labor unions representing coal workers profusely thanked the agency for drafting the proposal. It comes after years of clamoring for stricter measures to address a surge in the incurable lung disease commonly called black lung.

However, they still have some serious concerns.

The proposal, as currently written, would rely on mining companies to keep accurate records on silica dust exposure levels. Commenters like Dr. Drew Harris, medical director of the Black Lung Program at Stone Mountain Health Services, said they’ve heard enough stories of untrustworthy coal companies to be highly skeptical of self-monitoring.

“Many of my patients were told by their supervisors to do things that are appalling to me,” Harris said. “Whether it’s covering their dust monitors in coffee filters or putting them in their lunch boxes or being told to hang them in clean air parts of the mine – all of these things are unacceptable.”

Miner unions and black lung advocates also chafed at part of the proposal that lets miners “temporarily” continue work in known silica-laden environments as long as they use respirators. Advocates said no clear definition of the word “temporary” in the rule could leave a loophole for companies to ignore hazards and practically, they doubt miners will wear respirators faithfully during hot, strenuous work.

Meanwhile, industry groups – most representing companies who deal in minerals like limestone, sand and gravel – had their own concerns.

Industry representatives almost unanimously pleaded for an extension of at least 60 days to submit their comments, noting that MSHA representatives are seeking cogent rationale and data, not simply opinions.

“It’ll be extremely difficult for our industry, and especially our small business members, to put together comprehensive comments within [the given] 45 days,” Hunter Prillaman with the National Lime Association said. “An extension will be needed if MSHA hopes to receive truly helpful comments.”

Advocates for workers in coal mining have already decried the idea of extension for the comment period.

“The black lung epidemic and its neglect is one of numerous environmental injustices faced by the Appalachian region and other coal mining communities,” a coalition of 13 groups wrote to the agency before the hearing. “The longer the administration waits, the more miners will suffer and die. Mining families have waited far too long.”

Company representatives also pleaded for MSHA to acknowledge in rulemaking that dust exposure at work varies by task – not by the specific job title. They asked the mining regulators to include guidance in the proposal specific to job tasks, similar to a tableOSHA created for non-mine jobs that involve silica dust.

“It’s really more about the task versus the job position of the guy all day long,” said Robin Markussen, representing the Portland Cement Association. “When we do the [dust] monitoring, we have a tracker [that delineates] what did I do this day? Four hours here and four hours there, because we’re trying to highlight, where was your exposure? Where was your worst time? In my view the table one allows for that because it identifies not just a job position but a task…it gives you a valuable goal to build around that task.”

Several industry representatives characterized the proposed rule as “onerous” and speculated that the costs to implement it would put smaller mining companies out of business.

Patricia W. Silvey, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations, Mine Safety and Health Administration, responded to commenters, clarifying specific points in the lengthy proposal. She also strongly advised miner advocates and industry representatives to submit data-based evidence before the comment period ends in late August.

Additional hearings will be held on Aug. 10 in Beckley, West Virginia and Aug. 21 in Denver, Colorado. MSHA is urging anyone interested to participate either in-person or online, or submit written comments.

Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.