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Union, industry envoys blast coal-dust plan

U.S. proposal called murky, cumbersome and full of problems

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A federal agency's proposal for controlling coal dust takes up several hundred pages. But both union and industry officials have the same, two-word response: Ditch it.

Speakers at a hearing this week on proposed U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration dust-sampling changes said the document is fraught with problems, cumbersome and confusing.

"This thing is so murky," testified Joseph Main, safety and health administrator for the United Mine Workers of America. "It's difficult for people to understand."

About 45 people heard comments about the proposed rule change Wednesday and Thursday. The Salt Lake hearing was the administration's third and final hearing on the matter. Other hearings were last week in West Virginia and Kentucky.

The proposed changes represent the first major overhaul of coal dust regulations in more than 30 years. Among the major points is the agency's proposal to take over all sampling in underground coal mines to check for compliance with dust limits set to prevent lung disease. Mine operators have performed most of the sampling in the past three decades, but their test results have often raised suspicion about their accuracy.

The agency also would sample dust density during full shifts bimonthly. Currently, sample figures are averaged from several full-shift samples, but that can mask overexposures by diluting a measurement of high dust exposure with one of lower dust concentration.

The rule change was devised by the administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. The goal is to control dust to eliminate the onset of black lung and silicosis.

Despite calls to start from scratch, the administration hopes to issue a final rule by year-end. Marvin Nichols, administrator for coal mine safety and health, said "practical pitfalls" prevent the agency from starting over. The drafting of new rules alone would take months. "To take this back and risk losing these improvements, there are practical hurdles we would have to overcome," he said.

Among others calling for a completely new proposal were Randy Tatton,

health and safety manager of Energy West Mining Co., which has two underground mines in southeastern Utah; Bruce Watzman, the National Mining Association's vice president of safety and health; and Jim Stevenson, an underground safety representative for the UMWA.

Watzman called the proposal "too subjective, too open-ended," while Main reiterated that it "falls far short of what's needed to protect our nation's miners."

Several speakers said individual, continuous monitoring devices would be the best solution, but most acknowledged that the technology is not yet ready for use.

"It would empower miners to determine the level of dust they're being exposed to," Watzman said.

Speakers differed on allowing limited use of powered air-purifying helmets and procedures to supplement engineering controls in some long-wall operations where the mine's engineering controls are insufficient. Some said the helmets are bulky, heavy and faulty, placing miners at risk.

Others said their use should be expanded to other mine situations.

E-MAIL: bwallace@desnews.com