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Black lung rule could come this month, MSHA says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators hope to move forward this month to finalize a rule aimed at ending deadly black lung disease, according to the latest schedule released by the White House.

The Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration is now listing December 2013 as its target date for issuing a rule that, as proposed three years ago, would cut in half the legal limit for dust that causes the disease.

MSHA had previously said the final rule would be issued in September, but missed that date after agency officials did not forward a final draft for White House Office of Management and Budget approval until late August.

The rule has been repeatedly postponed, held up in part by Republicans in Congress who insisted on a U.S. Government Accountability Office audit, but also delayed by MSHA and the Labor Department.

The Obama administration included the latest timeline in the Labor Department's most recent semiannual regulatory agenda, which was made public last week.

In that regulatory agenda, MSHA also pushed back timelines for two key proposals to require coal mine operators to use proximity detection technology on continuous mining machines and other underground coal mining equipment.

Those proposals are meant to curb deaths and injuries from miners being crushed or pinned by fast-moving underground mining equipment.

MSHA is still working on a final rule to require the technology on continuous mining machines. That proposal, previously listed as headed for finalization in August 2013, is now listed with a February 2014 finalization date. The second rule, awaiting OMB approval to be proposed for public comment, was pushed back from November 2013 to May 2014.

Also, MSHA's regulatory agenda shows that it pushed back issuance of a proposed rule on silica exposure from this month to June 2014.

On the black lung rule, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has urged President Obama to expedite approval of the final MSHA rule.

Black lung, the common name for coal worker's pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust.

One goal of the 1969 federal coal-mine safety law was to eliminate black lung. Deaths declined for years, but experts have been warning since the 1990s that the dust limits need to be tightened. More recently, since 2003, researchers have been documenting an alarming increased incidence of the disease in younger miners, whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.

Last year, a joint investigation by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity, with additional reporting by The Charleston Gazette, documented widespread industry cheating on coal dust controls and repeated inaction by regulators to try to end the disease.

Between 1996 and 2005, nearly 10,000 coal miners nationwide died of black lung, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. West Virginia recorded the second-highest black lung deaths of any state, with more than 1,800 during that period, according to NIOSH.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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