Black lung disease is caused by long-term exposure to coal
dust. Inhaled coal dust progressively builds up in miners’ lungs, and
eventually causes disability and death.
Right now, coal mines have to abide by dust standards
established by the federal government. The proposed rule would cut the
concentration limits for coal mine dust in half—from 2 milligrams of dust per
cubic meter of air to one milligram—over a 2 year phase-in period.
MSHA’s new rule would also require some miners who work in
areas known to have particularly high dust concentrations to wear continuous
personal dust monitors all the time. MSHA chief Joe Main says this technology
will give immediate results, unlike what’s currently being used.
“We’re going to go from an infrequent sampling process with
a sampling device that required a filter to be taken out, shipped off to a lab,
and maybe two weeks later the information would go back to the mine, to the
miner, who maybe doesn’t remember what they were doing two weeks earlier, with
a device that gives us immediate information,” Main said.
The agency is also proposing that the methods for measuring
dust change. Right now, dust samples are taken from multiple shifts and
averaged. Monitors are often turned off after 8 hours—even though some miners
work 10- or 12-hour shifts. But under the new rule this will change. Monitors
will stay on for the duration of a shift, and officials will look at each
individual dust reading, rather than an average.
This is the third time MSHA has proposed rules to tighten standards—previous
versions have never been finalized. MSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Gregory
Wagner says the agency was spurred to try again in part because younger miners
are coming down with the disease.
“I think that what’s distressing and part of the driver
here, is that miners who have only worked under current dust conditions are
getting severe and disabling lung disease,” Wagner said. “They’re dying from it
and that’s one of the reasons that we know we have to do something now in order
to prevent disease in the future and to reduce the risk of serious disease from
miners who are already exposed under the current standard.”
Dr. Edward Petsonk is a pulmonary specialist who also teaches
at West Virginia University,
and he’s diagnosed many miners as young as 30 or 40 years old with black lung
“The only cause of black lung disease, of the type that
we’re seeing, which is called massive fibrosis, is dust,” he said. “There’s no
other cause for it. So the control of dust is what needs to be done, and I
think the MSHA proposals are very thoughtful and have been well-established
scientifically and should be effective.”
Joe Main says he hopes these are regulations the industry
and miners can get behind.
“So at the end of the day, I think the only logical
conclusion that you can make is we need to change the regulations to protect
these miners,” he said. “I hope that the miners, the mine community, embrace
this approach. It is the right thing to do, it is aimed at eliminating a
disease that has afflicted and plagued the mining industry for far too long.”
The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register
on Oct. 19. It’s open to public comment for 60 days.