MSHA is asking for cooperation on its new respirable coal  dust rule from the coal sector, the very group that has  sued the agency to overturn the regulation. The rule requires operators to take immediate corrective  action when a sample meets or exceeds the exposure limit.   Operators will be required to take five samples bimonthly  until 2016, when more stringent sampling requirements go  into effect.  

The uneasy relationship made for a tense meeting last  month when the agency called coal officials to MSHA’s  headquarters to collaborate on the rule and take questions  about how MSHA expects operators to comply.  One participant immediately asked MSHA chief Joe Main to  explain Main’s expectations about the nature of the  interaction about the rule between the regulator and the  regulated community.  

ruce Watzman of the National Mining Association (NMA),  a lead plaintiff in litigation over the regulation, asked  whether MSHA envision the interaction as involving  “mutually charting a course forward” or a one-way  dialogue where operators present issues and MSHA  responds. Main answered that the agency intended to  adhere to the regulation and was seeking information on  what MSHA needed to do to ensure a smooth transition to  the rule and plug “holes that we need to plug.”  

John Gallick of Alpha Natural Resources then asked Main  to consider a delay of several months in the August 1,  2014, interim effective date for what he called  administrative challenges.  The rule becomes fully effective  on August 1, 2016; however, certain provisions have to be  met before then.

Gallick’s request was repeated by other corporate  representatives and by Dennis O’Dell, Occupational Health  and Safety Administrator of the United Mine Workers of  America, who asked for a short delay so union miners have  time to become familiar with the new mandate. O’Dell  noted that union miners take their annual vacations  between June and August and thus may not be available  for training.  Main suggested he might be flexible on the  upcoming deadline only after Lou Barletta of Consol  Energy pointed out that the agency had shown flexibility in  previous rulemakings.

The agency will continue to review progress between now  and the August deadline, Main said, then added, “We’ll  look at where we are then.”

Gallick expressed concern inspectors might want to see  adjustments to engineering dust controls and ventilation  plan changes based on a single elevated result when a  minor change to a work practice may be all that is  necessary.    

“I believe that’s going to be the first battle with the  enforcement group,” Gallick said.  “That’s my first concern  administratively.”

MSHA’s Coal Administrator Kevin Stricklin replied that  inspectors will give operators the benefit of the doubt in  that case. But if over-standard results persist, MSHA would  insist operators investigate more thoroughly to identify  and correct the problem.

MSHA completed a series of six regional stakeholder  meetings on the rule in May.  Regulators offered to make  their experts available for additional outreach meetings  with individual operators, even at mine sites.  Main said  the agency also would schedule monthly sessions in June  and July with meeting participants. 

NMA, several state coal associations, and Murray Energy  Corp. and its subsidiaries have gone to the court of  appeals to overturn the rule.  In addition to claiming the  rule is economically infeasible, critics complain the agency  ignored evidence that an increase in black lung disease is  not widespread but found only in clusters and that MSHA  has ignored proven, yet cost-effective approaches for  controlling dust.