MORGANTOWN -- A tag team of regional coal miners and union representatives Monday told a federal agency its proposals to change how coal dust is monitored could harm miners' health.
"The proposal, in its current form, is fatally flawed," said Joe Main, United Mine Workers of America administrator for health and safety.
He was one of more than 100 people from West Virginia and Pennsylvania gathered Monday for the first of three national hearings on a voluminous two-part proposal by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to take over testing currently done by operators. The proposal constitutes the first major change in coal dust monitoring since the 1970s.
Main and several other union speakers said the proposal -- which is a response to a federal commission's recommendations to reduce the risk of black lung disease -- is inadequate and does not follow the recommendations.
Points of contention included what miners said was a reduction in air quality testing. Currently, mine operators are required to test air during five consecutive shifts and check the average against an allowable amount of dust. Miners said that has led to numerous cover-ups of dangerous air.
Under the proposal, federal inspectors would be a neutral source for all testing, but would test five times during one shift instead.
Ironically, while coal operating representatives did not speak publicly, they privately expressed the same frustrations on that point.
"We believe that the best way to address variation is to take an average," said Bruce Watzman, vice president for safety and health for the National Mining Association, a management group. He added, though, that operators are now in favor of federal testing as opposed to self-monitoring.
On other issues, there was less consensus between miners and operators. Of particular contention is a part of the proposals that would allow operators who have exhausted known technology to temporarily double the current maximum of dust at longwall sites if "air-stream helmets" are provided.
The miners said the helmets fog up, making it impossible to work. As a result, they are generally not worn or filters or removed.
"It's a step way back when we should be going forward," said Ronald Knisely of Fairmont, a fourth-generation miner who is on the union safety committee at Robinson Run mine in Shinnston.
"This black lung is a personal issue," he continued. "I've had a grandfather, three uncles and my father all suffering. We've got (local) guys going almost daily to Charleston to be tested. I have friends that have to carry oxygen bottles with them just to breathe."
Watzman, however, said economic realities have to be taken into consideration. If better filters can be produced, he sees air helmets as a workable solution in certain situations.
Main also said the proposal reduces miners' rights in certain types of violation reporting procedures and does not fully take into consideration the fact many miners are exposed to dust over a 10-12-hour shift instead of eight hours.
Rodney Brown, spokesperson for the safety administration, said such comments are being aggressively collected at this point.
Following similar meetings Thursday in Kentucky and Aug. 16 in Utah, the safety administration will continue collecting opinions through Aug. 24. Comments can be sent to the Mining Safety and Health Administration Office of Standards, Regulations and Variances, 4015 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22203. Or, fax comments to 703-235-5551 or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"There are a lot of differing opinions out there," Brown said. "We'll listen to them all and include them as best we can where appropriate."
Brown said the safety administration plan is to rework the proposal using the comments and release it as a ruling by the end of the year.