After a federal Court of Appeals rejected an industry-led challenge last month, a new federal rule to reduce coal miners’ exposure to dangerous dust goes into effect Monday.
In 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration began a campaign to end black lung disease, which is caused by breathing in large amounts of coal dust. The disease was in decline for decades but has experienced a recent resurgence.
“This disease is far from over,” MSHA Secretary Joe Main said. “Miners have suffered, families have suffered from this disease, and the time has come to fix this problem. And implementation of this rule will help us get there.”
Part of MSHA’s campaign includes federal rules to keep better track of the coal dust to which miners are exposed. Companies now have to take more dust samples, as well as sample for an entire shift. Over the next few months, coal miners working in the jobs with the most dust will have to wear small continuous personal dust monitors.
Main said the monitors will provide miners with real-time information about the dust they’re breathing.
“You can move a few feet one way or the other at times and get out of an airstream that carries a higher concentration of dust,” he said. “And those who use this tool will be able to see that and understand more in real time about where the best positions even are to stand up on a mining section or up on a longwall. That in itself is going to help miners get out of the dust.”
The monitors will record the information, and companies will be required to submit the data to MSHA to verify that dust levels are being controlled in their mines.
The National Mining Association and coal company Murray Energy challenged the new rules in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Lawyers for NMA and Murray argued the federal government didn’t have the authority to issue the rule, and also challenged the rule’s substance.
But a three-judge panel disagreed, rejecting the industry challenge. In a statement, NMA spokesman Luke Popovich called the decision “disappointing.”
“As we have said, this rule was a solution in search of a problem and the court, rather than addressing this, choose [sic] to accept MSHA’s definition of the problem,” he said.
Main said his agency believes coal operators can follow the new rules. He said despite the coal industry’s implosion in some areas of the country — including Appalachia — coal mining companies are still responsible for keeping miners safe.
“We all recognize the economics of the mining industry, where it’s at,” he said. “But with that, there has to be assurances that health and safety protections are in place for these miners all the time.”