Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Mine operators to oppose U.S. coal-dust testing plan

The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Prepared testimony to be delivered by the nation's mine operators at a hearing this week on the government's proposed federal takeover of coal-dust testing says the proposal is "a bad idea," the Courier-Journal reported Tuesday.

The National Mining Association and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association join opposition already voiced by the United Mine Workers of America.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration faced similar opposition, from operators and miners, that ultimately killed a federal takeover in 2000.

Officials with the two mine operators groups will tell MSHA that the government's proposal is being rushed, is "inconsistent" and is "a bad idea," according to prepared testimony that the Courier-Journal obtained copies of.

The two groups are scheduled to testify Thursday in Grand Junction, Colo.

MSHA has not listened to concerns from the miners or from the industry, Joseph Main, administrator of the union's Department of Occupational Safety and Health, said. "They've got themselves in a mess here," he said of MSHA officials.

Rodney Brown, spokesman for the agency, did not have specific comments about the concerns of the two mine industry organizations, pointing out the agency has not yet officially heard from them.

"Once the process is completed," he said, "we'll consider all comments before writing a final rule."

Mine-safety officials, who unveiled their plan in March, said it was intended to be the next step in government efforts to combat black lung, a debilitating and sometimes fatal respiratory disease caused by exposure to excessive levels of coal dust.

Black lung kills about 1,000 people every year. More than 112,000 people receive monthly benefit checks for black lung.

The mine workers' union has criticized the federal proposal as a reversal in policy that would allow operators to run dustier mines, presenting increased health hazards and risk of explosions.

In his testimony, Bruce Watzman, National Mining Association vice president for safety and health, will say that mine operators were disappointed that MSHA did not wait to see how new dust monitors work.

"Denying us the ability to utilize, in the rule-making, the knowledge that will be gained during the underground in-mine testing is inconceivable," according to Watzman's prepared remarks.

While the federal proposal has some good features, he said in the remarks, "other elements are inconsistent with what we believe is necessary to restore confidence in the system."

The mine operators oppose the federal plan to use individual coal-dust samples taken on single shifts as the basis for citing mines for excessive levels of dust. Under the current system, an average of multiple samples is used.

Another MSHA proposal would allow mine operators to give miners special helmets with air purifiers in places where dust levels cannot be kept low.

Dave Beerbower, vice president for safety at Peabody Energy Corp., will say mine operators would have to negotiate with MSHA over when other dust-control methods have been tried and exhausted, and in the past those conversations have been "confrontational disputes" between companies and the agency.

Finally, the mine operators will object to the requirement that, while the government will take over sampling of dust during operations - something the industry has been doing for more than 30 years - the companies still must conduct some sampling to verify that their dust-control plans work.

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