New rule takes effect limiting coal miners’ exposure to dust that causes black lung, top regulator says

A new standard that took effect this week will help coal miners limit their exposure to breathable dust that can cause deadly black-lung disease, the nation’s top mine regulator said.

Under the rule, companies must use continuous personal dust monitors on miners in the dustiest jobs.

The personal monitors will give miners quick information on how much dust they’re breathing, meaning miners and operators can make changes to reduce exposure, said Joe Main, head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“That’s a remarkable tool,” Main said in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

The rule took effect Feb. 1.

Under the sampling rule in place earlier, it could take days or weeks for miners to know the concentration of dust they had worked in, leaving no opportunity to make real-time improvements, Main said.

The new dust monitor is a computerized device that measures and displays exposure to respirable coal dust. It can be worn on a miner’s belt.

The other part of the new dust-control rule that took effect Monday requires coal companies to collect more samples of coal dust.

The coal industry challenged the new rule, arguing among other things that MSHA failed to show it was technologically and economically feasible; that sampling requirements were flawed; and that the personal dust monitors had a high failure rate.

A federal appeals panel struck down the challenge Jan. 25, ruling that MSHA had shown adequate evidence the dust monitor and sampling rules will produce accurate results and that the agency went through an “extremely thorough” process to draft the new rule.

An appeal of the decision is likely, Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, said Tuesday.

Main pushed for tougher standards on coal dust to try to drive down the occurrence of black lung, an incurable disease that impairs breathing and causes premature death. It is caused by inhaling tiny particles of coal dust churned out during mining.

Black lung has caused or contributed to the deaths of more than 76,000 miners since 1968, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The prevalence of the disease dropped markedly after Congress approved rules in 1969 to limit miners’ exposure to dust, but then started heading back up in the late 1990s, with Eastern Kentucky a hot spot in the resurgence.

Researchers have pointed to a number of potential reasons, including inadequate dust-control rules; failure by coal companies to follow rules; and more mining of thin coal seams in Central Appalachia, which churns out silica dust that also can cause deadly lung disease.

The coal industry argued the resurgence of black lung was a regional problem in Central Appalachia that did not warrant a new rule nationwide.

Main, however, said new cases of black lung have been documented in other regions as well.

The dust standards that began this week are part of a larger rule MSHA started phasing in in August 2014.

The earlier requirements included a quicker response by companies to an excessive dust reading; a tougher standard on compliance; and sampling during a miner’s entire shift, not just for eight hours.

Main said that despite industry protests about the difficulty of satisfying the rule, 99 percent of the 87,534 samples collected under the rule by late January were in compliance. That covered samples from more than 1,300 underground and surface mines, MSHA said.

The coal-dust levels observed at mines have dropped each year for several years, hitting all-time lows in 2015, and silica levels in 2015 were half of what were measured in 2009, Main said.

The final phase of the new dust rule is set to begin in August. It will lower the concentration of dust miners can be exposed to – something researchers have long advocated.

The goal is to end black lung, Main said.

“I just think if you look at the death and the suffering that we’ve all seen from this disease . . . we can no longer tolerate that,” Main said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader