By Kimber Ray
After over three years of delay, a proposal for stricter coal dust standards appears to be moving forward. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has submitted a final draft of its rules to the Office of Management and Budget for review. This development followed a letter sent by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) to President Obama in which Rockefeller urged the White House to address delays in approving new coal dust regulations.
Coal dust is connected to black lung disease, an irreversible and potentially fatal condition that has experienced an unexpected resurgence since the late 1990s. Although exposure limits on coal dust were first set by the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, the number of deaths from black lung since 1970 stands at over 70,000.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration initially proposed cutting allowable exposure limits on coal dust in half in 2010, but the rule was repeatedly delayed. It remains uncertain what MSHA has included in the final rule. However, MSHA cannot adjust the rules without approval from the Office of Management and Budget, which has previously taken many months to approve new mining regulations.
Rockefeller, a long-time advocate for mine safety, has been instrumental in pushing forward tighter limits on coal dust exposure. He has called on the Office of Management and Budget to expedite their review of the final proposal, and introduced new legislation this past July. The Black Lung Health Improvements Act of 2013 (S. 1416) would require that coal dust limits be updated twice a year until disease rates decline, streamline the process of applying for black lung disability claims and create funding for research into the disease.
Some congressional Republicans have cautioned that provisions to prevent black lung will be too burdensome on coal companies. Representative Andy Barr (R-Ky) was quoted in the Lexington Herald-Leader saying “Worker safety is a top priority, but not at the cost of putting that family in a very precarious financial situation.” According to the West Virginia Gazette, Rockefeller retorted “If you can’t be in business safely, you shouldn’t be in business at all.”