Test results show coal dust rules working, agency says
Tougher federal limits on coal dust that are set to become stricter next month appear to be helping clear the air for miners working underground, regulators said Monday.
A review of about 20,000 air samples collected with equipment required by new rules from the Mine Safety and Health Administration shows 99 percent were in compliance with dust limits, and 98 percent would meet a more stringent standard set to take effect Aug. 1 as part of a third phase of the rules, the agency announced.
“It’s continued good news on implementation of the rule, in terms of both compliance and the ability of the industry to comply, and the benefit miners are getting from this to really prevent black lung disease,” MSHA administrator Joseph Main, an assistant labor secretary, told the Tribune-Review. “For those who believe this rule is not achievable, the results of the numbers tell otherwise.”
The agency in 2014 issued controversial rules targeting dust in mines in an effort to limit new cases of black lung disease, a name given to a group of potentially fatal breathing ailments linked to coal mining. Industry groups challenged the rules in court, saying they would be impossible to implement and would not protect workers.
“The truth is, miners are still getting this disease because we have not been controlling dust,” Main said, noting there have been 500 new cases reported since 2010.
The first phase of the dust rules standardized the air sampling that coal companies must conduct, and a second phase that took effect Feb. 1 increased the frequency of those tests while requiring miners to carry new personal, tamper-proof monitors.
The air samples reviewed by MSHA were collected between April 1 and June 30 from those monitors, which provide real-time results.
“This is a state-of-the-art, game-changing tool that, instead of waiting days or weeks to get results back from a lab, the miners now know in real-time, as does the mine operator, so they can fix the dust problems during the shift,” Main said about the monitors.
The third phase, which takes effect next month, lowers the legal limit for dust in the air by 25 percent to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter.
Critics, including Ohio-based coal producer Murray Energy Corp., challenged the rules in court, arguing MSHA was overreaching its authority and that the lower limit would not improve the health of miners.
When the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rules in January, Murray said the regulations were “technologically infeasible, and will destroy thousands of coal-mining jobs.” Murray decided not to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court and did not provide further comment on MSHA’s air test results.
The National Mining Association also challenged the rules. Spokesman Luke Popovich said the industry group is pleased by the test results.
“The results are gratifying and a testament to the combined efforts of operators and regulators, as MSHA acknowledges,” he said. “That said, we still have concerns with MSHA’s new personal dust monitors and how operationally effective they will be since they’ve only been in use for about five months.”
The MSHA test findings mirror an analysis of previous samples done by the United Mine Workers of America when the first part of the rules took effect, union spokesman Phil Smith said.
“This demonstrates that it’s not difficult for responsible operators to comply with this rule,” he said.
David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or [email protected].