Now, the Gazette, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, the organizations which did the stories, hear that the Mine Safety and Health Administration and its parent agency, the Labor Department, "are putting together a team of agency experts and lawyers to specifically consider how to bolster coal mine dust enforcement given the statutory and regulatory weaknesses detailed " in the stories, NPR's Howard Berkes writes. "The effort includes discussion of how the agency might be more aggressive in filing civil and criminal actions against mining companies that violate coal mine dust standards, according to an internal Labor Department communication obtained by NPR."
Another new development, Ward reports, was a filing of a new lawsuit against Alpha Natural Resources by miner Terry Evan Lilly, "who alleges that mining practices — including cheating on respirable dust sampling — led to him getting the most serious form of black lung disease. Among other things, the suit filed by Morgantown lawyer Al Karlin accuses mine management where he worked" of instructing miners to hang air sampling pumps designed to measure dust exposures in areas where the air was clean instead of keeping the sampling pumps with them in the air where they were actually working. One of the mines Lilly worked at was Upper Big Branch, where 29 miners died in an explosion two years ago. The mine was owned by Massey Energy, which Alpha bought. Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin confirmed to Ward that his office is examining "potential criminal violations related to dust-cheating, as part of its continuing probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster," Ward reports.
The Appalachian News-Express, a thrice-weekly in Pikeville, Ky., has some ideas for solving the black-lung problem: "First and foremost, stop letting the coal companies — who are chafing against the regulations to begin with — report their own dust sampling data to determine if the regulations are being complied with. There’s simply too much opportunity, and temptation, for companies to massage their data to suggest compliance. Second, if companies are found in violation of the coal dust standards, enforce those violations. MSHA needs to stop granting extensions when violations are found that allow unsafe coal dust levels to persist for weeks, or even months, before being corrected.
Last, increasing the fines for violations of coal dust standards may convince coal companies that complying with the regulations is more cost-effective than breaking them. And if we directed the increased revenues from fines to help pay for the health care costs of black lung victims, it’s a win-win situation." (Read more, subscription required)