Members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) came from all across the West to attend. Present were UMWA miners from Kemmerer, Wyoming; Price, Utah; Rangely, Colorado; and Window Rock, Arizona; and Farmington and Black Mesa, New Mexico. Also attending were a number of representatives of the coal companies in the area.
The same day, in Birmingham, Alabama, over 80 miners gathered to protest the new MSHA proposal. At midday around 70 people went across the street to the United Auto Workers headquarters to rally against it.
Chipping away at 1969 Mine Act
Mine operators are required to mine coal with no more than 2 milligrams (mg) of coal dust per cubic meter of air. This is the standard that was fought for and won through the wave of strikes and social struggles in the coal fields following the 1968 Farmington, West Virginia, mine disaster. Out of these struggles, Congress was forced to enact the 1969 Mine Act. For the first time the government and mine operators were forced to recognize black lung as a job-related disease, enact laws to control dust levels, and establish black lung benefits.
Fine coal dust mixed with quartz, when breathed in over a period of time causes pneumoconiosis, or black lung. About 1,500 miners die each year from black lung, which can be limited by reducing dust levels in the mines with better air ventilation, use of water sprays, and scrubbers.
The 2003 MSHA proposal would increase the maximum dust level mandated by the 1969 Mine Act by four times, from 2 to 8 mg of coal dust per cubic meter of air. This would allow the mine operators to speed up their production rate at the expense of the miners health.
Another part of the proposal will allow companies that are not in compliance with legal dust levels to continue to mine coal while they submit and resubmit ventilation plans to MSHA. Meanwhile, MSHA says miners can wear respirators or air flow helmets in mines where the bosses refuse to maintain acceptable air quality. This is a further assault on the gains of the 1969 Mine Act, which states, use of respirators shall not be substituted for environmental control measures in the active workings.
A number of miners at the hearing had the opinion that air flow helmets are not safe to wear in a production setting. Many said that they are noisy, limit your vision, and get dirty or fog up.
Lawrence Oliver, UMWA Local 1332 president, said in an interview with the Militant, Right now, with dust levels at 2 mg per cubic meter of air, thousands of miners are dying of black lung every year. Who is going to be held responsible when a thousand more will die with four times as much dust?
Who will be held responsible?
Representatives of the National Mining Association (NMA), an organization of the coal bosses, gave a 45-minute statement at the hearing, addressing a number of things the bosses oppose in the new proposal.
Currently operators are required to submit to MSHA bimonthly compliance dust samples. Citations are issued for not submitting samples or for samples that exceed acceptable dust levels. The new proposal would require operators to collect Plan Verification samples for approval, which means operators would be responsible for verifying that their air ventilation plan meets all standards, and then MSHA would be responsible for compliance sampling.
The spokesman for the NMA said that until credibility is established, MSHA should have complete control over dust sampling, rejecting the proposal for operators to take any responsibility for dust sampling or the dust levels in their mines.
This is in the context of an increase in mine fires and explosions around the country directly related to methane gas and high dust levels. Consol Energy has already had three fires this year in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. Also, in September 2001, a methane explosion and fire at Jim Walters No. 5 mine killed 13 miners.
Following the Jim Walters No. 5 disaster, MSHA investigators found that nearly all coal dust accumulation samples in the area failed. Currently there are a number of lawsuits against Jim Walters filed by miners and their families. The National Mining Association is pressing to shift the liability of mine disasters and black lung compensation related to dust levels from the operator to the government.
Joe Main, UMWA international health and safety administrator, stated in a letter to MSHA, Instead of increasing the number of shifts in which compliance sampling will take place, the new proposal substantially reduces compliance sampling by as much as 90 percent at some mines. Currently around 34 shifts a year are sampled for dust levels, which would drop to as low as 3 shifts a year.
Oliver said that the new proposal leaves a lot of room for interpretation, which will cause continuous disputes between MSHA and employers over each mines Verified Ventilation Plan and whether or not the operators had exhaust[ed] engineering controls to reduce dust levels.
It will take a long time for MSHA to get any results, he said, and, in the meantime, miners will be forced to work in unhealthy conditions. At the same time MSHA will not be able to regulate the mines with less funding and less inspectors.
Oliver was referring to the Bush administration proposal for a $7 million cut in safety enforcement in the mines and the elimination of 65 MSHA inspectors late last year.
At the hearing, one of the main things the NMA campaigned around was that new Personal Dust Monitors (PDMs) will transform dust sampling forever, ending fraud and giving accurate dust level readings. This new technology would be part of the miners caplight and battery and would provide continuous dust level readings for the individual miner. Supporters of this say it would be an advance, getting more accurate readings of dust levels than the current method of taking shift samples bimonthly.
The current rules and the new MSHA proposal, however, do not empower miners to halt production when dust levels exceed dangerous levels. A likely scenario discussed at the hearing would be rotating miners who wear PDMs in and out of high dust level areas, not fixing the problem but spreading exposure to a higher number of miners. Another scenario discussed between a few miners was that workers who confront their boss about unacceptable dust levels would be told to wear air flow helmets.
The only rational solution to safeguard the workers wellbeing is increasing air ventilation and improving water sprays and other engineering controls to keep conditions in the mines below the maximum acceptable dust levels.
The government is enforcing no smoking in restaurants, bars, and everywhere, but look what they allow these coal companies to get away with, said Oliver. Its crazy. It is like they have forgotten that they are responsible for the thousands of miners that have died of black lung. So is MSHA saying that this is OK?
Jason Alessio is a member of UMWA Local 1984. Clay Dennison, a member of UMWA Local 2133 in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this article.
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