US Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main marked the 40th anniversary of the Coal Mine H&S Act this week.   The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward offers his perspective on the event in two posts published at Coal Tattoo.

Story 1:  MSHA celebrates landmark mine safety law, but when will Obama administration tighten dust limits to really end deadly black lung disease?

by Ken Ward, Jr., cross-posted from Coal Tattoo

Early this afternoon, officials from the U.S. Department of Labor and its  Mine Safety and Health Administration will gather in Washington for a celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

Wait … The 40th anniversary? Wasn’t that last year? Well, yes. The law was signed on Dec. 30, 1969. But, MSHA’s celebration is officially to mark the effective date of the law, which for most provisions was March 30, 2010.

Wouldn’t today’s event be a great opportunity for the Obama administration to make some major announcement … Oh, like maybe that MSHA was going to get back on track with its initial promise to tighten the legal limit on coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease?

Folks often point to the Farmington Disaster as one of the defining events that pushed Congress to pass the 1969 Act. But my friend Paul Nyden here at the Gazette has chronicled the major role that disabled miners and the drive for justice for black lung victims played in passage of the law.  And in fact, the law set out a rigorous schedule for addressing black lung, aimed at eliminating the disease forever.

First, lawmakers set this initial limit:

Effective on the operative date of this title, each operator shall continuously maintain the average concentration of respirable dust in the mine atmosphere during each shift to which each miner in the active workings of such mine is exposed at or below 3.0 milligrams of respirable dust per cubic meter of air.

And then,within three years, the legal limit was to drop to 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter.  Finally, Congress demanded that regulators set a schedule for reducing the dust limits to a level:

… Which will prevent new incidences of respiratory disease and the future development of such disease in any person.

 Now, we know that the current dust limit isn’t achieving this goal.  New cases of black lung continue to develop, and 10,000 miners have died from the disease in the last decade alone.  Since at least 1995, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has recommended that MSHA tighten the dust limit to 1.0 milligrams per cubic meter. A Department of Labor advisory panel reached similar conclusions in 1996.

Last spring, it looked like Obama was going to do something about this. MSHA’s regulatory agenda published in May 2009 listed an item for lowering the legal dust limit.  But after Joe Main’s confirmation in October as assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA, the new regulatory agenda that came out in December had been modified to include a proposal to reduce exposure to dust, but not actually tighten the legal limit. While MSHA hasn’t been speaking that clearly about all of this, their regulatory agenda language has been pretty clear: Lowering the exposure limit isn’t listed anymore.

Today’s celebration might provide a chance for Main or his boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, to make clear their intention to tighten the dust limit — if, in fact, that’s what they intend to do.

Story 2: President Obama on Coal-Mine Safety

by Ken Ward, Jr., cross-posted from Coal Tattoo

Well, it sounds like no one from the Obama administration took my suggestion and made a major announcement about their plans concerning fighting black lung disease during yesterday’s Coal Act anniversary celebration.  But the Labor Department did get a nice letter out of President Obama for the occasion. The President said, among other things:

In communities across America, the dangers of mining have been exposed through disasters and terrible losses of life. These tragedies were once all too common in our country, revealing the need for occupational safety measures to protect miners.

Since becoming law in 1969, the Coal Act has improved working conditions, reduced fatalities, and addressed pressing health concerns faced by miners such as black lung disease. Guarding the health and security of our workers preserves the long-term health of our citizens, our economy and our Nation.

Of course, the law also aimed to eliminate all black lung disease — something that is far from being achieved — and so far the Obama administration has declined to get back on track with its initial plan to tighten the legal limit for coal dust that causes this disease.

In her remarks at yesterday’s event, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis again recalled her visit last year to Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine. Without naming the mine this time, Solis said:

And in those 40 years, we’ve seen incredible changes in mine safety.
I was fortunate to witness many of those changes myself when I toured an underground coal mine in West Virginia last summer.
I was impressed by the equipment they use today, and by all the technological advances and safety and health improvements that have been put in place.

Secretary Solis  did not say anything about the broad investigation there of the falsification of important mine safety records by mine management…

Ken Ward Jr. is a reporter with the Charleston (WV) Gazette, covers coal mining and worker health and safety extensively, along with many other environmental health topics.  He is chair of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ First Amendement Taskforce.