Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Diesel Exhaust and Lung Cancer: Mine Explosions Aren't The Only Thing This Administration Is Failing To Prevent

Miners don't just die from roof collapses and explosions. Another panel at the House forum on mine safety yesterday heard from United Steelworkers Health and Safety Director, Mike Wright, who testified about the administration's proposal to delay implementation of a federal regulation that would reduce mine workers’ risk of getting cancer or heart disease from exposure to diesel fumes.

Confined Space has already covered this issue, but Wright points out another benefit of regulations. In addition to saving lives, it forces industry to find new and innovative solutions to health and safety problems.
Lawful or not, the delay will cost lives. Were it not so deadly serious, it would be amusing to follow the twisted logic used by MSHA to try to show that the long delay won’t really harm miners forced to breathe toxic levels of diesel fumes for five more years. MSHA’s main argument was that the lower limit isn’t feasible anyway, a conclusion belied by the preamble to the original standard, and by the extensive research MSHA and NIOSH have done since then. We believe that MSHA fully understands that the standard is feasible, and that it only remains to enforce it. We suspect that the delay was ordered by the Office of the Secretary of Labor.

Even the announcement of a proposed delay has already harmed miners. Regulation spurs innovation; deregulation can stifle it. Alternative fuels are one way to reduce diesel emissions. Biodiesel is one such fuel. Another is a proprietary emulsified fuel blend called PuriNOx. However, the company that makes it has decided to exit the business at least temporarily – in part, because they now anticipate less of a market in the mining industry, due to the proposed delay. Fortunately, there are many other ways to meet the standard, and all our past experience with rulemaking teaches that once a new standard becomes law, the market will create ever-cheaper and more effective ways to meet it.
In addition to his testimony about the administration's rollback of diesel fume protections, Wright also had this to say about the Bush administration's workplace safety "philosophy":
this Administration has made it clear that it believes in “voluntary compliance.” Well, we all believe in voluntary compliance, but every mine inspector – indeed every parent – knows that the way you get voluntary compliance is through strict enforcement. You can’t have the one without the other. Yet this Administration persists in seeing voluntary compliance and strict enforcement as incompatible. A favorite phrase is that “we have replaced confrontation with cooperation.” The Sago mine could have used a little more confrontation.
Meanwhile, the diesel fume controversy has also caught the attention of Washington Post regulatory columnist Cyndi Skrzycki, who illuminates the powerful forces behind the administration's proposal to delay the protections:
The mine industry opposed the rule, citing differences over how diesel fumes affect health, how diesel particulates should be measured and what level of reduction is feasible.

Led by Patton Boggs attorney Henry Chajet, a group called the Mining Awareness Resource Group Diesel Coalition filed two lawsuits. One was over the rule and one was over the handling of an epidemiological study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Cancer Institute .

"The rule adopts a limit that is invalid, has no scientific basis and is not achievable from an engineering standpoint," Chajet said. "We have been stuck with this giant failed high school science project for five years."

The coalition is made up of mining companies and gets financial support from the National Mining Association, the industry's Washington trade group. The coalition and the NMA met with officials from the Office of Management and Budget in August to voice their concerns about the rule, one participant recalled. A month later, MSHA proposed postponing the effective date of the rule.
Coincidence? I think not.