Black lung proposal not expected until Sept. 2010
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration doesn't plan to propose new rules aimed at ending black lung disease until September 2010, and it remains unclear if those rules will include lowering the legal limit on coal dust that causes the deadly disease.
Department of Labor officials on Monday issued their latest "regulatory agenda," and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis listed a Mine Safety and Health Administration campaign to end black lung as among her agency's top priorities.
On Tuesday, MSHA chief Joe Main followed up with a Web chat in which he answered questions from the media and the public about the black lung program and other MSHA regulatory plans.
Last week, Main hosted an MSHA event in Beckley to kick off the agency's "End Black Lung: Act Now," campaign, an effort aimed at eliminating a disease that's killed 10,000 miners over the last decade alone.
But in the process, MSHA appeared to be backing off an administration initiative announced in May -- before Main took office -- that specifically promised to lower the legal limit on dust from the current standard of 2 milligrams per cubic meter of air in underground mines.
Main said Tuesday that MSHA has combined that initiative with other potential rule changes, including revising the way coal dust is sampled for regulatory purposes and the methods MSHA uses to verify mine operator dust control plans.
"The new rulemaking -- as noted -- will be designed to lower exposure to coal mine dust," Main said during the MSHA Web chat.
Main also noted that MSHA moved up the timetable for publishing a proposed rule, from April 2011 to September 2010.
"We're committed to moving through the regulatory process as quickly as possible," Main said.
But in revising its regulatory agenda, MSHA changed the title of its initiative from "Occupational Exposure to Coal Mine Dust (Lowering Exposure Limit)" to "Occupational Exposure to Coal Mine Dust (Lowering Exposure)."
And, the actions listed as planned changed from "MSHA will publish a proposed rule to lower the coal mine dust permissible exposure limit" to "MSHA will publish a proposed rule to address miners' exposure to respirable coal mine dust."
Main and one of his top aides, black lung expert Dr. Greg Wagner, have indicated they believe they may be able to end the disease by taking other steps to reduce exposure, and not actually tightening the legal limit.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts has said the union believes "it's going to be very difficult" to end black lung without tightening the dust limit.
And at least one staunch advocate for miners' health and safety said Tuesday she's not especially impressed with what MSHA has announced so far.
"For me, the disappointment was that last week there was this suggestion of this big sense of urgency," said Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA staffer who now teaches and does research on worker health issues at George Washington University.
"And yet I didn't see that urgency in their regulatory agenda. The idea of reducing the limit seems to be missing from this. They seem to have purposely taken that out."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.