Feds lower level of coal dust allowed in mines

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A new federal rule aimed at reducing coal dust in the mines and black lung disease for those who work there won't help Dewey Keiper.

But the 54-year-old Montgomery, W.Va., resident, who had to retire from his job at Massey's Energy's Mammoth Mine in 2007 when he was diagnosed with the debilitating and potentially fatal respiratory disease after 28 years working underground, hopes it can help the next generation of miners.

"I can't walk up a flight of stairs without losing my breath, but on level ground I'm still doing fairly good," said Mr. Keiper, in a drawl punctuated by several coughs. "I can see the new coal dust rule helping, but you know the coal companies will fight it. They'll spend $5,000 on lawyers just to beat a miner out of $50 they owe him."

Mr. Keiper was one of about 100 miners and miners widows on hand in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health building lobby on the West Virginia University campus for the announcement of the long-delayed coal mine dust rule aimed at reducing miner exposure and reversing a trend that shows black lung disease rates among miners doubling since 1997.

More than 76,000 miners have died from black lung disease, also known as coal miners pneumoconiosis, since 1968, a year before passage of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act that made elimination of black lung disease a priority.

About 1,500 miners die from the disease each year, and many younger miners have been diagnosed with the disease, particularly those in the Appalachians.

The final rule, which replaces an outdated standard in place since 1972, will be phased in over the next two years. It will lower the overall coal dust standard from 2.0 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air at both deep and surface mines, require operators to conduct more frequent air sampling in the mines during the full miner shift time, and immediately reduce dust levels where they exceed the new limit.

"Today, we advance a very basic principle: You shouldn't have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. "I believe we can have both healthy miners and a thriving coal industry. The nation made a promise to American miners when we passed the Coal Act in 1969. With today's rule, we're making good on that promise."

But the coal industry immediately challenged the rule.

Murray Energy Corp. announced it will file a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor, saying the new mine dust rule is "deeply flawed and irrational," has no scientific support and is technologically and economically unachievable. Massey also criticized the Obama administration for formulating national standards to solve a regional problem.

"Clearly the Obama administration has no interest in protecting miners" Murray said in its release, "and, instead, is only seeking to further their own agenda, specifically, their War on Coal, which has been destroying the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of coal miners and their families, and this industry."

In October 2010, MSHA published a proposed rule that contained a 1.0 milligram-per-cubic-meter-of-air standard. After public hearings and taking into account about 2,000 pages of comments from industry, labor, public health professionals and academia, the agency settled on the higher 1.5 milligram-per-cubic meter-of-air standard.

Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said the new standard, though higher than what MSHA recommended, will, in conjunction with closing a variety of testing and monitoring loopholes, reduce the dust levels to which miners are exposed and improve miner health.

"This is a historic day for coal miners. From this moment forward, for those who work in a mine, your life is going to change," said Mr. Main, himself a former coal miner. "We are finally moving forward, to overhaul an outdated program that has failed to adequately protect miners from breathing unhealthy levels of coal mine dust and achieving the intent of Congress to eliminate black lung disease."

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than $45 billion in federal compensation benefits has been paid to coal miners disabled by black lung and their survivors.

James Bounds, 66, of Oak Hill, W.Va., who retired from mining in 2003 after 34 years in the mines with five different companies, is one of those. He was diagnosed with black lung in 2009 and said the new rule is a good step in the right direction.

"Now it's going to be up to the men to enforce it," Mr. Bounds said. "They're in there every day and see when the company pushes the rules aside to get the coal produced. They know when the company doesn't care about putting up curtains or watering the dust or providing ventilation."

There are about 130,000 coal miners in the U.S. today, down from about 760,000 in 1927, according to the Labor Department.

Correction, April 24, 3:13 p.m.: The previous version of this article misidentified Murray Energy Corp. 

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published April 23, 2014 1:56 PM

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