It wasn’t the first time an industry made wild exaggerations about a proposed safety regulation, but one made by the coal industry in 2011 was a doozy. Now five years later, we have the data to show how big a doozy it really was.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration had proposed a new regulations to protect coal miners from black lung disease. The coal industry insisted that many of the nation's 1,500 coal mines would not be able to comply with a rule that would reduce cut in half the allowable concentrations of respirable coal dust in the miners' work environment.
Alliance Coal's vice presidents, Mark Watson and Heath Lovell, claimed the new rule would lead to an extraordinary number of violations. Instead of about 200 citations issued annually for excessive concentrations of respirable coal dust, they claimed MSHA would be issuing as many as 230,000 violations annually. It was repeated and repeated: 230,000 violations!!
Watson and Lovell's exaggerated figures were picked up by the US Chamber of Commerce which said that so many violations would
"ultimately jeopardize [some mines] ability to remain in operation."
Murray Energy also repeated the 230,000 figure and said
"we are gravely concerned that it will be extraordinarily difficult to avoid having our mines fall into the pattern of violations enforcement mechanism—and that our mines may never emerge from the 'patterns' sanction."
Ultimately MSHA issued the new rule and it has been phased in over the last two years. The penultimate provision to take effect is the reduction in the allowable concentration of respirable coal dust. On August 1, it dropped from 2.0 mg/m3 of air to 1.5 mg/m3 (averaged over a workshift) but which is not as low as the 1.0 mg/m3 level MSHA had proposed.
Last month, just before the lower exposure limit was set to take effect, an announcement by MSHA chief Joe Main confirmed the absurdity of the industry's 230,000 violation estimate. Based on 87,000 air monitoring samples, 98 percent were already in compliance with the new 1.5 mg/m3 exposure limit.
Despite the coal industry's wild exaggeration, it shouldn't be a surprise that coal mine operators can meet the lower exposure limit. As I wrote when the final rule was issued, a lot of mine operators had already figured out how to reduce coal dust levels well below the current standard. MSHA reported in 2010----six years before the new exposure limit took effect----that for some key mining tasks, including dusty jobs like roof bolting, more than 50 percent of samples collected by MSHA were already at levels at or below 1.0 mg/m3. Yet MSHA decided to set a less protective exposure limit, one in which coal miners still face a significant risk of harm. By MSHA's own calculations: an estimated 50 cases of progressive massive fibrosis per 1,000 coal miners and as many as 99 cases of emphysema per 1,000 coal miners.
So, what does MSHA do about that problem? It has a new regulation in place but is one that leaves too many miners at grave risk of lung disease. When MSHA published its new rule in May 2014, it acknowledged the permissible exposure limit it just adopted was inadequate. The agency stated:
"MSHA intends to conduct a retrospective study that evaluates the 1.5 mg/m3 respirable dust standard to determine if the standard should be further lowered to protect miners’ health."
I hope that evaluation is already underway.