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Mine Dust Rules Could Slow Production, Coal Mining Companies Say


The Labor Department has announced new rules to protect coalminers from black lung. Regulations were supposed to eradicate black lung decades ago. Yet when I went to college in Eastern Kentucky's coal mining region, some of my fellow students had fathers who'd been killed by it. Black lung is blamed for 76,000 deaths over 50 years.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports how the rules are changing now.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Black lung is a catch-all phrase for diseases that can make a lung look like a shriveled and burned paper bag. It steals the breath of coal miners, choking them slowly, making even talking, eating and sleeping a challenge. It killed or helped kill 76,000 coal miners in the last 50 years, and continues to threaten about 50,000 miners still working underground.

Gary Hairston was one of them, for 28 years.

GARY HAIRSTON: It hurts that you can't do what you used to do. You can't be what you used to be.

BERKES: Like a provider for his family, or a basketball coach for the kids. Hairston fits a troubling trend: a resurgence of black lung, which strikes miners earlier and progresses more quickly to the worst stages of disease. Yesterday, that trend prompted the Labor Department to adopt new, long-delayed rules that limit exposure to coal mine dust.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez made the announcement in West Virginia, with Hairston watching.

SECRETARY THOMAS PEREZ: You shouldn't have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood. No one should have to die for a paycheck.

BERKES: The new rules cut by 25 percent the amount of allowable coal mine dust exposure. The agency had proposed limits twice as strict, but the mining industry complained that that would force mining machines to generate less dust by slowing down or shutting down altogether. The result, says mine safety advocate Celeste Monforton, protects miners' jobs more than their health.

CELESTE MONFORTON: The rule still leaves a significant number of coal miners who will be developing very severe lung disease. I mean, this does not eliminate the risk of disease for miners, which is what MSHA said it wanted to do.

BERKES: MSHA is the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Agency Chief Joe Main says the new rules also close loopholes in mine dust sampling and enforcement. They led to widespread fraud and weak enforcement in the testing system, which was also supposed to limit exposure to mine dust.

JOE MAIN: We went after a lot of the loopholes, a lot of the flaws in the current sampling system to make it more credible, that were actually measuring the dust that miners breathe. And by doing that, we're going to lower the dust levels itself before we even start lowering the standard.

BERKES: The mining industry fought the tougher dust exposure standard, but that doesn't mean mining companies are happy. Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association says the overall approach is too broad.

BRUCE WATZMAN: Clearly there is a problem, but it's not a problem across the entirety of the industry. And that's a fundamental difference in our view, that we're imposing a new requirement on the entirety of the industry when, in fact, our take on the data doesn't demonstrate that this is a problem of that magnitude.

BERKES: Government studies show the resurgence of black lung affects portions of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky most. Watzman also worries about an economic hit to an industry already suffering from competition from natural gas and tougher pollution limits on coal-fired power plants.

The Labor Department puts the cost of compliance at about $30 million a year for the entire industry. That industry generates more than $38 billion a year, according to the Labor Department. Mine owners have as much as two years now to adapt to the new rules.

Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.