The Obama administration ordered a 25 percent cut in the levels of coal dust in U.S. mines to reduce deadly black lung disease, a move that drew criticism from the mining industry and the threat of a lawsuit.
The rule issued today, which is effective Aug. 1, will lower the allowable level of dust in mines and require more frequent air testing, costing operators less than 1 percent of industry revenue, the Labor Department said. The industry said the standards cannot be met with existing technologies.
Black lung disease has killed more than 76,000 U.S. miners since 1968, leading to $45 billion in benefits for miners and their survivors, the department said. Coal dust causes pneumoconiosis, emphysema and progressive massive fibrosis.
“You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez said today at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Morgantown, West Virginia.
The revised exposure levels are the first revision in the mine-dust standard since 1972 and sparked a battle between the federal government and the coal industry, which said cases of lung disease since 1980 have declined under existing rules. The Labor Department proposed the revision four years ago.
The cost to the coal industry will be about $61 million in the first year and then less than $30 million on an annual basis, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department. Benefits from lower medical bills are estimated at $36.9 million a year.
The rule lowers the level of allowable coal dust to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air from 2 milligrams, effective in two years. A 2010 proposed version of the rule had called for cutting the level to 1 milligram per cubic meter.
That standard is “technologically and economically unachievable,” according to a statement from Murray Energy Corp. of Pepper Pike, Ohio. Murray, the largest closely held U.S. coal producer, said it will sue to block the rule.
“Instead of protecting miners’ health, this rule clearly seeks to destroy the coal industry, and the thousands of jobs that it provides, with absolutely no benefit to the health or safety of miners,” Murray said in a statement.
Mine operators also will be required to install devices to monitor of a mine’s dust levels all the time, and take immediate action when levels are too high.
“Today’s announcement represents a lost opportunity to provide better protection for those who need it and more job security for all our coal miners,” Harold Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said in a statement. The incidence of disease “has decreased in most regions and where it does exist, it is clustered in isolated geographical areas,” he said
Perez defended the standard at 1.5 milligrams rather than the 1 milligram level offered in 2010. Today’s final rule closes loopholes in testing for coal dust and the actions required once levels are exceeded, making the standard more effective, he said.
“We are becoming a much more credible deterrent as a result of closing these loopholes,” Perez said.