No matter what mining industry reps say, MSHA's proposed rule to address black lung is easily achievable

Thanks to Ken Ward at Coal Tatto for alerting me to a hearing conducted last week in the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Overight and Government Spending, of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform called "EPA's Appalachian Energy Permitorium: Job Killer or Job Creator?" The majoirity of the witnesses were at the ready to sing the praises of King Coal and complain that the Obama Administration is trying to cripple the industry. The target of the oversight hearing was the EPA, with Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) serving as lead-off witness and insisting that the Obama Administration's EPA

"puts ideology first, and hardworking West Virginians, who are working to put food on their family's tables, last."

As Ken Ward noted one witness used the opportunity to complain about MSHA's proposed health standard to reduce coal miners' exposure to respirable dust and prevent black lung disease. (Yes, US coal miners are still developing dust diseases of the lungs, including coal workers' pneumoconiosis and silicosis.) The President of East Fairfield Coal Company, Mr. Tom Mackall, testified:

"...MSHA has proposed a respirable dust standard that is unachievable in underground mine settings." (emphasis added)

What's puzzling to me is Mr. Mackall's statement doesn't jive with the experience at his own undergound coal mines.

Based on enforcement data made available on the Mine Safety and Health Adminstration's (MSHA) website, Thomas Mackall is a mine operator with underground and surface coal mines, as well as limestone quarries, in Ohio and Pennsylvania. I identified two active (e.g., not abandoned or idled) underground coal mines in the MSHA database for which Mr. Mackall is listed as the controlling operator. From January 1, 2008 through July 15, 2011, these two mines (Shean Hill and Carroll Hollow #6) had 20 inspections in which the federal mine inspectors collected air samples to evaluate the concentrations of respirable dust in the coal miners' work environment.

At the Shean Hill mine, of the 68 air samples collected during 11 different inspections, 4 of those 68 were over the permissible exposure limit of 2 mg/m3. Three of the four samples were collected in the breathing zone of a coal miner performing roof bolting. The mine operator received only one citation over that period (with a $285 penalty) for these overexposures to the respirable dust limit. More importantly for his assertion that the proposed regulation is "unachievable," more than half of the 68 samples collected were already below the 1mg/m3 exposure limit proposed by MSHA.

At his other mine called Carroll Hollow #6, of the 59 air samples collected during 9 different inspections, 3 of those 59 were over the permissible exposure limit of 2 mg/m3. All three of the samples were collected in the breathing zone of a coal miner performing roof bolting or driling. The mine operator received only one citation over that period (with a $334 penalty) for these overexposures to the respirable dust limit. Like the situation at the Shean Hill mine, many of the air samples---75%, in fact--- showed concentrations at or below the limit being proposed by MSHA.

It's hard to understand how Mr. Mackall and others in the mining industry can insist that the proposed exposure limit is "unachievable in underground mine settings." At his own mine, he shows it is achievable. Imagine what is possible if mine operators took a few additional steps to eliminate or control respirable dust?? Steps like improved ventilation, enhanced dust collectors, and better water sprays are practical and achievable.

Respirable dust concentrations at Mr. Mackall's underground coal mines are comparable to the situation nationwide. MSHA's enforcement data indicates that the vast majority of coal mine operators are already complying with the 1.0 milligram standard. In 2009, in working sections where a continuous mining machine is used and depending on the job task, between 74 and 99 percent of inspector samples for respirable coal dust were ⤠1.0 mg/m3. Even for the dustiest jobs on longwall mining sections, between 40 and 56 percent of full-shift respirable dust samples were at or below 1.0 mg/m3.

Under its statute, MSHA is required to demonstrate that the regulations it proposes are technologically and economically feasible. The analysis supporting the rule shows that it is. The agency estimates the first year costs of the rule to be between $72.4 to $93.2 million for the industry as a whole, with annual costs of less than $40 million. That's certainly feasible for an industry with annual revenues of $35 Billion. We also know from the recent wheeling and dealing in the coal industry, it is a lucrative part of our economy. Mr. Donald Blankenship alone received a $12 million retirement package from Massey Energy and an estimated $86 million from the sale of the firm to Alpha Natural Resources. The U.S. coal industry is financially healthy. It is more than able to absorb the costs of better protection for US coal mine workers.

For 15 years, the scientific evidence has been telling us that US coal miners are exposed to levels of respirable dust that cause disease, but under the current federal mine safety regulations, these exposure levels are legal. That needs to change. Not only is it ethically the right thing to do, but it is also the law of the land. The 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act requires:

" the greatest extent possible, the working conditions in each underground coal mine are sufficiently free of respirable dust concentrations in the mine atmosphere to permit each miner the opportunity to work underground during the period of his entire adult working life without incurring any disability from pneumoconiosis or any other occupation-related disease during or at the end of such period."

In other words, US coal miners should be able to have a long career in an occupation they enjoy, and when they retire, their lungs should be healthy----not scarred and inelastic because of imbedded coal and silica dust.

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