Federal regulators proposed tougher limits Thursday on coal dust exposure to better protect the nation's 73,000 coal miners from chronic lung disease.
The change is part of regulations the Mine Safety and Health Administration is proposing in hopes of eliminating black lung disease, director Joe Main told reporters during a teleconference. The agency plans to hold public hearings and take comment before adopting final rules, a process that typically takes a year or more.
Black lung is caused by inhaling dust and has plagued coal mining for generations. Government researchers blame the chronic disease for the deaths of more than 10,000 coal miners in the past decade.
While the number of new cases had decreased, regulators have found evidence in recent years that suggests it's making a comeback among younger miners under current regulations.
"We are finding an increase," Main said. "The only logical conclusion that you can make is we need to change."
The changes would cut existing limits for breathable coal mine dust in half.
It also would require miners working in the dustiest areas of mines to wear devices to continually measure dust levels and warn them if they exceed regulatory limits. Currently, dust is measured using filters that require a week or more to read in a lab.
"It gives miners the opportunity, if they're in dusty locations, to actually move around," Main said.
MSHA also wants to increase the amount of time dust levels are measured and add breathing tests to medical checkups that already include chest X-rays.
The United Mine Workers union praised the proposal, calling it potentially a "tremendous step forward" for the health of miners.
"We have long known that the only way to prevent black lung is to reduce miners' exposure to respirable coal dust. We have the technology and the means to do that," President Cecil Roberts said.
"The only thing we have lacked-until now-was a determination by MSHA that this was a problem which needed to be addressed," he added in a statement.
MSHA estimated the changes would cost mine operators up to $93 million in the first year and as much as $44.5 million annually, though coal supply contracts typically allow companies to pass along the cost of regulatory changes to customers.
The National Mining Association reacted cautiously.
"Our initial view is this is an aggressive approach that will require a comprehensive suite of technologies," the trade association, which represents mining companies, said in a statement. "In addition, operators will need to employ an equally broad range of workplace practices."
The association repeated its support for continuous dust monitoring, but also renewed its push for protective gear such as air helmets. Currently, miners aren't required to wear breathing protection.