Coal Tattoo

Yesterday morning, MSHA chief Joe Main was on the phone with news reporters, touting his agency’s ambitious and aggressive new regulatory agenda.

The event was part of a broader public relations effort by the Obama administration’s Department of Labor, with Web chats and telephone conference calls about the agency’s regulatory initiatives. As former MSHA and OSHA staffer Celeste Monforton has written on The Pump Handle blog:

… These plans quickly become stale because target dates are missed, new issues emerge and political winds shift, but they still give us a snapshot inside the agencies and the Administration’s regulatory strategies at a moment in time.

With that in mind, it’s particularly interesting to look at the MSHA regulatory agenda’s entry regarding what arguably is the most important mine safety and health issue facing the nation’s coalfields: The rule titled, Lowering Miners’ Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors.

MSHA proposed the rule back in October, already nearly a year after officially kicking off its “End Black Lung: Act Now!” program. Remember that black lung has killed roughly 10,000 miners in the last decade, and public health advocates — including NIOSH and a Labor Department advisory panel — were advocating a tightening of the dust standard back in the mid-1990s. And, of course, the Obama administration went through months of a song-and-dance over whether they would actually follow those long-standing recommendations when they finally proposed their rule.

So now, with public hearings scheduled this month and next, what’s MSHA’s new regulatory agenda say about its next steps toward getting this rule finalized?

Post hearing comment period end: 2/28/2011

That’s it. No deadline for when the agency plans to issue a final rule.

So during a conference call with Joe Main and his regulatory chief, Patricia Silvey, I asked about that …

Pat Silvey kindly explained that this was MSHA’s semi-annual regulatory agenda. It’s a six-month-out look at what the agency has planned, she said, adding:

That’s what we’re here to talk about … we do not project further than that … we cannot project any further than that at this time.

OK. Well, if that’s the case, then it’s obvious I guess that MSHA doesn’t plan to finalize the coal-dust limits anytime in the next six months.

But when I looked at other items on MSHA’s agenda, agency officials in fact did project out beyond that six-month time frame. For example, the regulatory proposal concerning metal and nonmetal dams projects that MSHA will finish analyzing public comments in September 2011. Or, an item concerning approval of electrical products for use in mines is listed as having a proposed rule scheduled for publication in August 2012.

And in fact, the Federal Register notice outlining what Department of Labor agencies are supposed to include in their regulatory agendas says this:

Executive Order 12866 requires the semiannual publication of an agenda of regulations that contains a listing of all the regulations the Department of Labor expects to have under active consideration for promulgation, proposal, or review during the coming one-year period.

So, I’m not really sure what Pat Silvey and Joe Main were getting at with this thing about only projecting out six months in MSHA’s regulatory agenda. I asked the agency for a more complete explanation, but I haven’t heard anything back yet.

I would like to know — and coal miners would probably like to know — when MSHA expects to put in place the tougher coal-dust limits that experts say are needed to protect workers from this deadly disease.