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Black lung plan may not lower dust limits

BEAVER, W.Va. -- The Obama administration on Thursday kicked off a campaign to "end black lung," but said it may not follow through on a proposal to tighten the legal limits on coal dust that causes the deadly disease.

U.S. Department of Labor officials detailed plans to increase outreach to industry and education of miners, as well as to beef up enforcement of current dust regulations.

The department's Mine Safety and Health Administration said a third part of its campaign -- toughening those existing regulations -- was not ready to be discussed publicly.

Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, said a timetable for issuing any rule changes would be announced Monday, when his boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, releases a new department-wide regulatory agenda.

But in a press conference and later interviews, Main said it is no longer clear that the campaign will include something Obama's MSHA already added to its regulatory plan in May: tightening the allowable limits on coal dust in underground mines below the current 2 milligrams per cubic meter.

"We have to look at this whole range of things," Main said.

Black lung is a collection of debilitating and potentially fatal diseases caused by breathing coal dust.

In 1969, Congress set eliminating the disease as a national goal. The law has reduced black lung among the nation's miners. But, at least in part because of industry cheating on dust samples, the law has fallen far short of the goal. Since 1970, the federal government has paid out more than $44 billion in compensation to miners who were totally disabled by black lung.

Over the last decade, roughly 10,000 miners nationwide have died of black lung -- about one every nine hours. Scientists have recently warned of a doubling of black lung rates since 1997, and of alarming incidents of the disease among younger miners whose entire work careers took place under the 1969 law's standards.

"There's a substantial problem and it's something we can and should do something about," said Dr. Greg Wagner, MSHA's deputy assistant secretary for policy. "It's time to do something about it."

MSHA said Thursday's event, held at the federal Mine Health and Safety Academy near Beckley, is the first in a series of workshops in coalfield communities to try to focus attention on black lung. Others are planned over the next few weeks in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky.

Agency officials plan to distribute new materials about black lung, controlling respirable dust, and other related topics. MSHA's outreach is also going to include one-day workshops aimed at educating the industry about how to control dust in underground mines.

Next week, MSHA will initiate a "Dust Sweep," where every coal mine inspector will dedicate a part of each inspection to health-related activities. Inspectors will look at dust controls, ventilation plans, and other mining practices that affect dust exposure.

On the dust limit issue, separate reports by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and a Labor Department advisory committee recommended in 1995 and 1996 that MSHA tighten the dust limit. NIOSH and many miners' health advocates want to cut the limit in half, to 1 milligram per cubic meter.

In May, Solis issued a new regulatory agenda that said MSHA would by April 2011 issue a proposed rule that would tighten the dust limit. And last month, Main indicated he supported doing so and wanted to speed up the schedule for that rule.

But on Thursday, Main told coalfield reporters in a conference call that MSHA was looking into other steps that could be taken to reduce miners' exposure without reducing the "permissible exposure limit," or PEL, the legal dust limit in mines.

Those options include improving dust testing with new continuous dust monitors, and with sampling that more accurately represents the longer hours miners work and the specific exposures in particular jobs, rather than mine-wide averages calculated from various samples.

"We're going to lower the dust level in these mines," said Main, longtime health and safety director for the United Mine Workers union. "Part of that mix might be lowering the PEL.

"I do not want this message left that this agency is backing off of lowering the dust levels in coal mines," Main said. "That is exactly wrong.

"I'm not here to say, 'Ah, we're not going to do one milligram,' or 'Ah, we're going to do one milligram,'" Main said. "I'm saying everything is one the table here and we're going to make decisions in the best interests of miners."

UMW President Cecil Roberts said in an interview that the union believes lowering the dust limit "needs to be part of the package" and that "it's going to be very difficult" to end black lung without doing so.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., praised Main for declaring that black lung needs to be eliminated, adding, "I'm sure that coal miners will join me in applauding the assistant secretary again, once he finalizes and begins successfully enforcing the numerous rules that will help truly to end this disease."

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


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