Coal Tattoo

Will President Obama end black lung disease?

2009logo.pngMy Gazette print edition story on today’s MSHA announcement about black lung is online now here.  And there’s a ton of information about the “End Black Lung: Act Now!” campaign collected on MSHA’s Web site here.

There’s no doubt this is a big priority for MSHA and for the agency’s new chief, longtime UMWA safety director Joe Main.  Rightly so, given that 10,000 more coal miners died over the last decade from this disease.

In announcing the program (she wasn’t there today, but sent along a video greeting),  Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said:

The Department of Labor is absolutely committed to ending lack lung disease. We will use all the tools necessary to control dust in coal mines and reduce risks of disease to our nation’s coal miners.

And Main said:

While considerable progress has been made in reducing miners’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust, miners continue to develop black lung and silicosis. Having a comprehensive strategy is essential to tackle the occurrence of this highly preventable condition.

josephamain.pngMSHA also posted a “From the Assistant Secretary’s Desk” letter on its Web site in which Main elaborated:

It is my goal to deliver on the promise of the 1969 Coal Act to prevent new black lung cases and prevent further development of black lung among miners who already suffer.

I am announcing the start of an intensive initiative from MSHA that I believe will achieve our goal of ending black lung. “END BLACK LUNG – ACT NOW!” is a comprehensive effort that involves the entire coal mining community and includes education and training for miners, miners’ representatives, supervisors, and operators; enhanced enforcement of respirable dust standards; effective use of available dust control technology; and regulatory improvements to reduce miners’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust.

But, as I reported in my Gazette story, coalfield journalists learned during a conference call and later interviews with Main that we would have to wait a while longer to see what sorts of rule changes were being considered and what the timeline for trying to finalize those would be.

Main said those details would come on Monday, when Solis is scheduled to release the DOL’s agency-wide regulatory agenda. But as Celeste Monforton pointed out over at The Pump Handle,  we might be able to learn the details tomorrow morning, when The Federal Register makes a sneak-preview of Monday’s rulemaking publication available online.

Still, the big news really was that MSHA appears to be already wavering on its announcement in May that added a proposal to tighten the legal coal-dust limit to the agency’s regulatory agenda.  I included several quotes about this in my print story. Perhaps some of Main’s comments — things like “We have to look at this whole range of things” — can be seen as his effort to take legal advice and not appear to pre-judge any rulemaking matters.

But I couldn’t even get Main to say that MSHA remained committed to the item in its May regulatory agenda — which, for the record, specifically said:  MSHA will publish a proposed rule to lower the coal mine dust permissible exposure limit. (The deadline for the proposal wasn’t until April 2011, but that’s another story).  So, saying that MSHA was going to lower the limit wouldn’t have done anything to pre-judge a rulemaking. It just would have confirmed that this item was still part of the agenda.

Let’s be clear about one thing: I am not saying I know more then Joe Main or deputy assistant MSHA chief Greg Wagner about how to end black lung. Perhaps their ultimate plan is to come up with a series of other reforms — single-shift sampling, continuing dust monitors, etc. — that will do the job without the political battle that lowering the exposure limit might involve.

That was Clinton administration MSHA chief Davitt McAteer’s intial plan, too. But McAteer later added reducing the exposure limit to his regulatory agenda, though probably far too late for it to actually get done before Clinton left office, and of course, the Bush administration dropped the proposal. And today, the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda for the agency says they’re going to propose lowering the limit … either they still plan to propose that, or they don’t.

One very interesting thing was pointed out today by a Coal Tattoo reader. Remember the S-MINER Act, the bill the build on the 2006 MINER Act by adding things that the Democratic leadership in the Senate couldn’t get Republicans or the Bush White House to agree to? Well, it included language that required MSHA to cut the permissible exposure limit for coal dust in half, to 1.0 milligrams per cubic meter. There was a Senate version of S-MINER. And, guess who one of the sponsors was? That’s right, it was then-Senator Obama. (Along with Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Patty Murray and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was the lead sponsor).

I hope Joe Main didn’t get too irritated with my pestering today, as I tried to nail down exactly what MSHA was saying at this point about the permissible exposure limit. Coal mine safety advocates, especially those who have worked with Joe for so long with the UMWA, have high hopes for his tenure at MSHA and anyone who cares about coal miners can’t help but hope they are right. And personally, I’ve certainly learned a ton over the years from Joe. Many times he spent far more effort than he probably had time to helping this dumb reporter understand some obscure safety rule so I could write a story that made sense.

It’s very, very early in this new MSHA campaign to end black lung … so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, here’s some video of an interview with Joe Main about the issue of lowering the dust limit: