Underground coal mines will ramp up testing for the dust that causes breathing problems and leads to black lung disease under a new federal rule that took effect February 1.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is requiring coal operators to increase the number of air samples taken in underground mines. The new rule also will require miners working in the dustiest underground conditions to wear personal devices that give real-time readings on air quality.
Federal officials say increased sampling is key to curbing breathable dust in the mines.
“This marks the next step in our efforts to end black lung disease once and for all,” said Joe Main, who heads the federal mine safety agency.
Black lung, which has no cure, can cause significant breathing and mobility problems, and kills about 1,000 miners each year.
The new rule is the second phase of a set of new dust requirements that started in August 2014. The United Mine Workers of America has supported it, saying the rule will reduce the incidence of black lung among workers.
The National Mining Association, an industry group, has opposed the new rule, saying the increased sampling could cause operational issues by interrupting production. The group and several coal companies challenged the rules in federal court, arguing that the federal mine agency, known as MSHA, had exceeded its authority. The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled last week that the agency had the authority to issue the rules.
Bruce Watzman, a senior vice president with the National Mining Association, said Monday that the parties that brought the suit disagree with the appeal court’s Jan. 25 ruling, calling it “disappointing.”
“The flexibility that operators had under the previous sampling protocol is eliminated, making compliance far more difficult,” Watzman said in an email message.
Main said miners working in the dustiest conditions will now have a better tool to measure the dust that they’re breathing inside the mine. Miners who operate coal digging machines will wear the new devices, which are called continuous personal dust monitors.
“We’ve been using a system for decades where when the sample is taken, nobody knows what the results of those samples are until they get sent to a lab, processed, and sent back and the miner sees the results posted on a bulletin board days to weeks later,” Main said.
The rules increase sampling for the dustiest conditions from five every two months to 15 samples every quarter. A total of 15 samples of other miners must also be taken during the quarter, according to the new rule.
Main said the increased sampling also will help the federal agency get a better handle on who has black lung, since the data has been elusive in the past. He has said black lung, or pneumoconiosis, is likely afflicting far more miners than the data collected by MSHA shows. From October 2010 through the end of September 2015, mine operators reported 701 cases of black lung among their workers, but in a four-year span from 2010 to 2014, 3,675 miners were awarded black lung benefits, according to the MSHA.