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Labor Dept. Backs Miners’ Union

July 30, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Siding with miners over mining companies, the Labor Department on Monday said it will appeal a ruling that would require the government to change the way it tests for dust in underground coal mines.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao’s decision comes a month after the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission threw out citations against a mine operator _ ruling the government should check dust levels in mines over several shifts, rather than rely on samples taken during one eight-hour shift.

Federal inspectors check dust levels, because prolonged exposure to excessive concentrations of coal mine dust can cause black lung disease _ a debilitating illness that is sometimes fatal.

The United Mine Workers of America had urged Chao to fight the commission’s ruling.

``We are very supportive of the decision to appeal,″ said union attorney Judith Rivlin. ``We think it was the right decision.″

Rivlin said it would require a ``much greater commitment of personnel and dollars″ if the agency were forced to revisit a mine several times before inspectors could issue a citation against an operator.

But Bruce Watzman, vice president for safety and health at the National Mining Association, defended the commission’s decision.

``We think ultimately this will be upheld in court,″ he said of the ruling.

In issuing the ruling, the commission cited a 1971 government finding stating that single shift measurements aren’t very accurate. Watzman said going to a multiple-shift system would lessen any variability that occurs when dust samples are collected and analyzed.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is among several lawmakers who recently urged Chao to appeal the commission’s decision.

``Coal mining, by its very nature, has always been one of the most dangerous occupations in the world,″ Byrd said. ``It should not be made more dangerous by ill-advised changes in the enforcement of black lung safety standards.″

The union estimates more than 1,400 coal miners die of black lung disease each year.

Chao also has sided with miners in a separate legal case that involves defending Clinton-era regulations making it easier for miners to get black lung benefits. The industry opposes those regulations.

The Bush administration has sided with the coal industry over environmentalists in several instances. Those include backing off a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide pollution and endorsing subsidies for companies that invest in clean-coal technology.

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On the Net:

Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission: http://www.fmshrc.gov

Labor Department: http://www.dol.gov/

United Mine Workers of America: http://www.umwa.org/homepage.shtml

National Mining Association: http://www.nma.org/

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