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Obama plans quick action on black lung, new MSHA chief says

 Read more in Coal Tattoo.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration plans action "in the next couple of weeks" on a program to tighten dust limits in underground coal mines and take other steps "to end black lung disease," the new head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said Friday.

Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for Mine Safety and Health, said MSHA plans to speed up publication of proposed dust limits from the April 2011 timeline set earlier this year by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

"We're going to do everything we can to speed up the process here," Main said. "We're going to use every ounce of energy we have to squeeze as much quickness out of that process as we can.

The black lung plan was among the initiatives Main discussed Friday during a conference call with coalfield news reporters, his first significant public statements since being confirmed by the Senate last month.

Main was a coal miner and is the former longtime safety and health director of the United Mine Workers union. Mine safety advocates have expressed high hopes for his management of MSHA, an agency that is still rebuilding after years of budget and staffing cuts during the Bush administration.

Also Friday, Main issued a newspaper commentary that marked the 41st anniversary of the Farmington Mine Disaster, which led to passage of the federal mine safety law of 1969.

In that piece, Main outlined the series of federal mine safety reforms, always enacted only after major mining disasters claimed many lives. And Main said that, "Further improvements are needed, though, to achieve the health and safety goals that this nation's miners deserve."

But Main told reporters he would not yet take a position on additional changes in federal law that Democratic congressional leaders and the UMW have sought to build on the 2006 MINER Act. UMW spokesman Phil Smith declined to comment specifically on Main's refusal to take a position on the so-called "S-MINER Act," and would say only that the union supports the bill and hopes Congress passes it and President Obama signs it.

Main also said he plans to generally "beef up" MSHA's focus on miner health issues, launch initiatives to combat common safety violations that lead to deaths and work to ensure that miners can play a strong role in enforcement of the safety law in their own workplaces.

Also, Main said MSHA would put the entire mine rescue system "under a microscope" to pinpoints gaps that still exist after the reforms following the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster.

Main said another major issue is improving MSHA's training requirements and the industry's training practices to ease the transition as an older work force retires and new, inexperienced miners move into those jobs.

Main said he plans also to encourage mine operators to add staff and expertise to their internal safety departments so companies can find problems before MSHA inspectors do.

"Today, I think you see a much leaner safety department in some of these mining operations," he said, "and the money that they're paying for fines and sending to the federal government would be better invested back into the mining operation ... so when MSHA shows up at the end of the day, there are less conditions to be cited."

On the black lung issue, numerous experts have, since at least the early 1990s, recommended tightening the dust limit in underground mines from 2 milligrams per cubic meter to 1 milligram per cubic meter.

The issue has received growing attention from mine safety advocates, especially as they've noticed a resurgence in black lung among pockets of miners in the Appalachian coalfields.

Under the Clinton administration, then-MSHA chief Davitt McAteer announced plans in April 1999 to tighten the dust limit. But, the rule was not completed before the Bush administration took office in January 2001 and was dropped from MSHA's rulemaking agenda in December 2002 by then-agency chief Dave Lauriski.

Lawsuits trying to force MSHA to take action on the dust standard have not been successful.

Main pointed out that he served on a Labor Department advisory commission that in 1996 recommended tightening the dust limits.

"There was a need to lower the level of unhealthy dust in the mines," Main said. "I believed that then, I believe it now and, at the end of the day, as we pull together a package to really address the issue of black lung and silicosis, we are going to be looking at the recommendations that have been on the plate for some time."

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


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