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Good News: Feds say Miners Exposed to Less Coal Dust

Federal figures show miners are being exposed to record low levels of coal dust. (MSHA)
Federal figures show miners are being exposed to record low levels of coal dust. (MSHA)
October 14, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Some good news about coal, miners are now being exposed to less coal dust than ever. Mine safety officials hope this turns a corner toward fewer cases of black lung. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration reports air samples from the mines show historic low levels of coal dust, fully thirty percent below the previous record.

The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, Joe Main, credits tougher rules for allowable dust, more and better sampling and more enforcement of ventilation rules.

"There's no reason any miner should ever get the black lung disease," he said. "And the fact that we've been able to, on average, get the dust levels down to less than a milligram tells us that it is achievable to clean up this air. It is preventable."

Mine operators had criticized the tougher standards as unworkable. But Main said more than 99 percent of 150,000 samples from this fiscal year met the new, higher standards, in part, with the industry's cooperation.

Main said black lung has killed 76,000 American coal miners, by gradually making it impossible for them to breathe. He said an unexpected rise in the number of cases moved the then-new Obama Administration's Department of Labor to first toughen enforcement and do more outreach. Then in 2014, MSHA made stricter rules allowing less breathable dust in the air samples. Main said in effect, they better used the rules in place, and then, tightened those rules.

"These cleaner, more efficient dust-control plans and ventilation plans being not only put in place, but more toughly enforced, paved the way for this new rule to produce the results it is, with the high compliance rates," he explained.

MSHA is also reporting fewer accidental deaths in the mines this year. Main said they haven't confirmed the number of man-hours worked, which could make the low number of deaths less impressive. But his gut feeling is, the mines are getting safer.

"In 2014, we had 30 mining deaths," he added. "From August of last year through February, we held it to three. And we've proven that zero fatalities is really achievable in the mining industry."

Main added the amount of silica dust in the air samples is averaging half what it was.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV