WASHINGTON -- Someday, a device known as the personal dust monitor could save coal miners a lot of misery.

The "PDM," as it's known in mining circles, can tell coal miners precisely how much coal dust they're breathing underground at a given moment. By helping moderate miners' exposure to this dangerous dust, public health experts believe the PDM will help scale back the prevalence of black lung disease, the debilitating respiratory illness that afflicts thousands of American miners.

The PDM has been ready for the market for years, and the federal agency that oversees mining safety has proposed making its use mandatory in American mines. Yet the device remains shelved, caught in a game of Washington politics that public-health advocates say is costing lives in coal country.

"We think it needs to be deployed," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the leading union for miners. "They are allowing a disease that we know kills people to continue."

The PDM, which was developed by Thermo Fisher Scientific, is now part of a regulatory proposal for coal mining that stretches back to the Clinton administration: to cut the threshold of allowable coal dust in a mine's atmosphere by half, from 2 milligrams per cubic meter to 1. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) initially recommended lowering the limit back in the mid-90s, declaring the current regulations too weak to protect workers.

More than 15 years later, their recommendation remains just that. Meanwhile, incidences of black lung have resurged in many mining areas.

Nearly two years ago, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed lowering the coal-dust threshold while mandating the use of PDM's, a move cheered by safety advocates. But the prospect of lower limits -- combined with real-time readings showing just how bad the air is in some mines -- has drawn the opposition of mining companies.

The rules still have not gone to the White House for approval, and it appears unlikely the Obama administration will have the political will to take them up ahead of an election centered on jobs and the economy. A Mitt Romney administration would very likely shelve the regulations for good; the GOP presidential candidate has talked about the need to relax regulations on businesses, and he recently campaigned with Bob Murray, a coal baron and major GOP donor who happens to strongly oppose the black lung rule.

Given the politics at play, safety advocates worry that another window of opportunity may be closing.

"That’s what makes me sick to my stomach, thinking for 10 years we could have had that in place," said Celeste Monforton, who worked at MSHA at the end of the Clinton years and has blogged devotedly about the delay with the regulations. "If this rule, for political reasons, doesn’t move forward, then we have a whole generation of miners who will have been exposed to coal dust because people play politics with people's lives."

Miners develop black lung disease, known technically as pneumoconiosis, after years of breathing coal dust. Dust buildup within the lungs makes it difficult to breathe, leaving many miners to live out their retirements gasping for air. NIOSH estimates that around 10,000 miners died of black lung during a recent 10-year period, and that the disease has been the underlying or contributing cause in the deaths of 75,000 miners since 1968.

After a decline that started in the 1970s, black lung disease has seen a disturbing uptick in many pockets of coal country in the last 15 years or so. A recent analysis of data by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found that "incidence of the disease ... doubled in the last decade." Experts surmise the problem has been exacerbated by new mining methods that add more silica dust to the coal dust already present in mine atmospheres. Eastern Kentucky, in particular, has been hard hit; the region tends to have smaller coal operators and weak union presence in the mines.

The long delay in lowering the dust limits has probably cost miners their lives, suggests a new report from the Government Accountability Office released Friday. The report found that the current levels put miners at "increased risk" of black lung, massive fibrosis and decreased lung function, while the proposed regulations "would reduce miners' risk of disease."

Although miners still aren't using PDMs, MSHA has solicited some of the devices for its own inspectors. MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere declined to comment on the delay, except to say that the agency is still "working on the rule." Thermo Fisher, the manufacturer of the PDMs, declined to comment.

While the new rules have sat with MSHA, House Republicans have tried to block them from going into effect. Last month, GOP members of the House appropriations committee inserted language in a budget bill that would defund any efforts by MSHA to implement the new coal dust standards. One of the biggest opponents of the new rules has been Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), the Montana congressman who's running for Senate and relies heavily on donations from oil, gas and mining interests.

Given the long delay, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has introduced a broad mining reform bill that would force MSHA to roll out the new regulation within six months. On Friday, Rockefeller issued a statement calling the lower limit and the use of the PDM "long overdue." "We must act now before we lose more West Virginia coal miners to this disease," Rockefeller said.

The coal industry's leading trade group, the National Mining Association, has urged MSHA to scrap the rule. Bruce Waltzman, senior vice president, told HuffPost in an email that there are "flaws in the science." The NMA wants the agency to withdraw the rule, conduct an independent peer review and "bring all the stakeholders together to discuss how best to reduce the incidence of coal workers pneumoconiosis." Waltzman noted that the NMA has supported the development of the PDM, though he added that the lobby will support its introduction "once proven to be reliable and mine-worthy."

Coal safety expert Davitt McAteer headed up MSHA when the agency tried to implement new coal dust regulations at the end of the Clinton administration. McAteer told HuffPost that the agency faced opposition from both the industry and the UMWA. As the Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr., recently reported, the union at the time felt the new rule wasn't strong enough, and the Clinton White House never finalized it.

As a result, the same coal dust testing system has remained in place for decades, leaving the coal operators themselves to conduct sampling -- a scenario McAteer compares to the proverbial fox guarding the hen house. Given the looming election, McAteer doesn't expect the rule to be finalized and approved by the White House anytime soon. The White House has been skittish on moving ahead with workplace safety regulations that business groups decry as unnecessary, and miners have little in the way of political capital when compared to the coal lobby.

"I expect it won't happen, and if Obama does win a second term, will he use up the chit on this?" McAteer said. "I think the sad thing is, you’ve seen a disease that is utterly preventable reemerge as a health crisis in an industry that is just unwilling to take it on, and is prepared to sacrifice miners' lives for the sake of just keeping the regulations at bay."

The UMWA supports the proposal, but with a caveat. According to an agreement it signed with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, the industry group that negotiates with the union, the UMWA wants the coal dust limits implemented on a per-week, rather than a per-shift, basis. In essence, this would allow a worker who didn't breathe much coal dust on Monday to breathe more on Tuesday.

Smith, the UMWA spokesman, said the union is just looking out for its members. He said they worry that a miner who's hit his or her exposure limit could end up being temporarily bumped to a lower-paying position elsewhere in the mine. "We're not in favor of putting them at risk, but at same time we want to see them get the pay they earn," Smith said.

Until MSHA moves forward with the rule and the White House approves it, such concerns are just preliminary. In the meantime, regulators can weigh the concerns submitted by stakeholders during the public-comment period, including one from Ronald Martin, a miner from Knott County, Ky.

"I'm in last stage of Black Lung," Martin wrote in his own hand. "Please help the miners so they wont suffer like I'm suffer [sic]. I can't breath but little. God help everyone. Please."

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  • Upper Big Branch

    Twenty-nine <a href="http://www.facesofthemine.com/faces-of-the-mine-upper-big-branch-memorial-page/" target="_hplink">miners</a> died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5, 2010. The mine, located in Montcoal, W.Va., was owned and operated by the Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy.<br><br>The Mine Safety and Health Administration <a href="http://wvgazette.com/News/montcoal/201009170861" target="_hplink">has said</a> that sparks from a worn-out piece of machinery combined with a buildup of coal dust caused the accident. Massey Energy has <a href="http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2011/01/28/massey-continues-to-dispute-msha-on-ubb-cause/" target="_hplink">continued to say</a> that a buildup of methane gas caused the explosion.<br><br>At a public meeting detailing the federal investigation, Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for mine safety and health at MSHA, said that there were two sets of books on mine conditions kept by Massey workers -- an accurate log that included safety problems, and a separate, watered-down version for federal and state inspectors to see.<br><br>The Upper Big Branch explosion was the <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304450604576415683464733192.html?KEYWORDS=upper+big+branch" target="_hplink">worst</a> U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.

  • Crandall Canyon Mine

    On Aug. 6, 2007, six miners were trapped in the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah, after roof-supporting pillars <a href="http://www.msha.gov/genwal/ccSummary.asp" target="_hplink">failed</a> and ejected coal over a half-mile area. Ten days later, three more people were killed by a subsequent collapse during the rescue effort.<br><br>According to the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/genwal/ccSummary.asp" target="_hplink">official</a> accident investigation summary released by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the catastrophe was the result of "an inadequate mine design." Unsafe pillar dimensions and an poor engineering management review contributed to the collapse.<br><br>In the above photo, family and friends carry the the body of Dale Black -- one of the rescue team members -- to his burial site at Huntington City Cemetery.

  • Darby Mine No. 1

    On May 20, 2006, five miners were killed in an explosion at Darby Mine No. 1 in Holmes Mill, Kentucky. According to information <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/darby.htm" target="_hplink">released</a> by the United States Mine Rescue Association, the explosion was the result of methane gas that was ignited by the cutting of a metal roof strap.<br><br>The miner who was working on the roof strap with a cutting torch had a functional methane detector tucked away in his pocket, a sign that it was not being used to check continuously for the potentially lethal gas. The USMRA also says a cutting torch should not have been used at the time.

  • Sago

    On Jan. 2, 2006, an <a href="http://www.msha.gov/sagomine/sagomine.asp" target="_hplink">explosion</a> at a mine in Sago, W.Va., killed 12 workers and severely injured one. The 13 miners were <a href="http://www.msha.gov/Fatals/2006/Sago/ftl06C1-12.pdf" target="_hplink">forced</a> to barricade themselves within the mine after the explosion -- caused by elevated levels of carbon monoxide and methane -- destroyed 10 seals used to separate a closed area of the mine.<br><br>Ben Hatfield, CEO of the International Coal Group, which owned the Wolf Run Mining Company that ran the Sago Mine, received criticism when the families of the fallen miners were falsely informed that the 12 men had lived. In an interview with NPR, workers and family members who were present when Hatfield broke news of the deaths <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5134307" target="_hplink">described</a> the scene as "chaos."

  • Scotia

    In March 1976, a succession of explosions at the Scotia Mine in Oven Fork, Ky., claimed a total of 26 lives.<br><br>The first blast happened on March 9, killing 15 men. During rescue efforts on March 11, a second explosion killed 11 more.<br><br>Investigators <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/scotia.htm" target="_hplink">concluded</a> that both explosions were caused by the ignition of a methane-air mixture inside the mine.

  • Consol No. 9

    An explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, W.Va, killed 78 people on Nov. 20, 1968. The explosion was followed by raging <a href="http://www.wvculture.org/history/disasters/farmington02.html" target="_hplink">fires</a> that brought rescue operations to a halt.<br><br>A <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97115205" target="_hplink">memo</a> from a federal investigator that surfaced in 2008 revealed that a safety alarm on a ventilation fan had been deliberately disabled before the explosion. The alarm, which hadn't been working for as long as 90 minutes before the blast, could have saved the lives of the 78 miners.<br><br>The tragedy at Farmington led to the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/mshainfo/mshainf2.htm" target="_hplink">passage</a> of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. That act paved the way for the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/REGS/ACT/ACTTC.HTM" target="_hplink">Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977</a>, the legislation that currently governs the Mine Safety and Health Administration's activities.

  • Cherry Mine

    On Nov. 13, 1909, a fire killed hundreds of workers in a coal mine in Cherry Hill, Illinois.<br><br>According to <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/cherry.htm" target="_hplink">reports</a> from the United States Mine Rescue Association, kerosene torches were used that day after the mine's electrical system broke down. Hay brought into the mine to feed mules that worked underground caught fire after being parked under one of the torches.<br><br>The fire quickly spread, causing the deaths of 259 men and boys who worked in the mine.

  • Monongah Nos. 6 And 8

    On Dec. 6, 1907, explosions occurred at a pair of nearby mines in <a href="http://www.msha.gov/disaster/monongah/monon1.asp" target="_hplink">Monongah</a>, West Virginia, killing 362 men and boys. The blast could be felt as far as eight miles away.<br><br>It wrecked the mine's ventilation system, allowing toxic gas to fill the area and hinder rescue efforts. Though investigators aren't certain of the <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/monongah.htm" target="_hplink">cause</a> of the explosion, it was probably started by the ignition of firedamp -- combustible gas made up mostly of methane -- and coal dust within the mine.