Whitesburg KY

Proposed new black lung rule would be setback

Kentucky residents may be interested in current efforts by Sen. Mitch McConnell, his wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and their energy industry allies to kill new initiatives to eliminate black lung disease and other serious health problems faced by miners.

The McConnell team has been very persistent in its efforts to weaken mine health and safety. From the opening days of the Bush administration, Chao delayed implementation of rules to limit the exposure of metal and non-metal miners to diesel engine emissions and eliminated critical requirements before allowing the limit to go into place only very recently.

And she has changed a uniform disclosure rule on health risks to provide an exemption for mine operators. While other employers have to provide their employees with information on the latest findings of several organizations about the health risks to which they are exposed, mine operators are permitted to ignore any recent findings.

Many miners are exposed to toxic chemical substances, and yet nothing has been done to revise exposure limits set 40 years ago. And while the McConnell team is well aware that black lung has returned to exact its horrible toll on a new generation of miners and that there is technology that can end this problem forever, the department continues to “slow walk” solutions right to the last day of the administration.

On one hand, the McConnell team opposes legislation passed by the House of Representatives that would adopt specific solutions to longstanding problems. Their primary argument is that these matters are too complex for Congress and ought to be addressed through regulations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

On the other hand, McConnell and company stall the development of such regulations, weaken existing rules and establish new procedures to delay action well into the future.Sadly, this has become standard operating procedure for the McConnell team.

The most recent effort was officially initiated this month by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Department of Labor, headed by Leon Sequeira, a former legal adviser to McConnell. Sequiera reports directly to Chao. The office has no statutory authority for mine health or safety and no substantive or legal expertise on the subject. Sequeira’s office does share a close working relationship with the White House office that President Bush established to review proposed agency actions.

According to published reports, the latest move would change longstanding rules on how MSHA determines the severity of health risks to miners. Under federal law, MSHA is supposed to set health standards for miners that ensure no harm “even if such miner has regular exposure to the hazards dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life.” The new initiative by the McConnell team would alter the assumptions used about the length of a “working life” in the mines.

When MSHA proposes a rule to protect miner health, the agency takes public comment for up to a year and holds hearings around the country so miners and mine operators can participate. This is generally preceded by a preliminary round of public comment and many meetings with stakeholders.

But the McConnell team takes a different approach for weakening miner protections. The new initiative — which did not come from MSHA, but from the policy office — hasn’t been discussed in advance with miners nor listed on the department’s twice yearly agenda of rulemaking plans. And reports indicate that it will apparently get only a month or so for public comment, and no hearings. Apparently, shortcuts are OK when the McConnell team says they are.

If the new rule change is adopted, it may bind the hands of the next administration as well.

The McConnell team is responding to an energy-industry lobby effort that is short on facts and long on whining.

Of course, we all know that notwithstanding its excellent financial health at the moment, the mining industry in Kentucky may decline as the country and the world turn to wind power and other renewable energy sources. Nobody wants to see good jobs disappear or a tax base disappear or communities wither.

But preventing black lung and other serious diseases is not going to break the industry’s back — indeed, the House already has agreed that the government, rather than mine operators, should pay for a new generation of devices to measure miner exposure to coal dust.

Taking care of this problem now will also save the taxpayers from the liability that companies will once again dump on the government if they go broke, and avoid uncountable pain and heartache for Kentuckians.

Pete Galvin of Bethesda, Md., is a retired mine safety and health staff expert for the U.S. House and formerly worked for the Labor Department. This commentary appeared in the July 29 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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