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Mining Group Presses on with 'Compromise" Silica Proposal

Wednesday, April 10, 2013   (0 Comments)
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A tiny mining association representing industrial sand producers believes it has the solution for eliminating silicosis, and, to the chagrin of many in industry, it has not been shy about saying so.

On March 19, the National Industrial Sand Association (NISA) carried its message to congressional and Executive Office staffers in a blog posting in The Hill newspaper, which is widely circulated on Capitol Hill and at the White House. For good measure, NISA also met a day earlier with the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is reviewing an OSHA proposal to regulate the mineral. The meeting was the second between NISA and the government on the issue.

NISA advocates regular monitoring of employee exposures to assure silica levels do not exceed an action level. When they do, the organization says employees should be given x-rays and other medical tests to determine if the exposures have been harmful, and institute control measures to assure silica levels stay below the legal limit.

NISA’s 31 member companies mine sand that contains a very high percentage of quartz, the most common form of crystalline silica What gives heft to NISA’s recommendations is its claim its members have been taking those very steps voluntarily for more than 30 years. More importantly, they have something to show for it. In the blog, NISA President Mark Ellis asserted silicosis has virtually disappeared from the ranks of its member companies. The association has approved a year-long case-control study of industrial sand workers that is designed to identify any lung-related health effects at various exposure levels.

NISA’s position is unique for two reasons. First, it favors a new regulation. Second, while it could sit quietly by and just let the OSHA rulemaking play out, instead it has become a vocal advocate trying to influence the debate.

Thus, to industries who view the best regulation as none at all – and many of these are engaged in the silica controversy – NISA is seen as a turncoat, a pariah. Critics maintain that OSHA’s proposal would cost billions, especially to comply with what they believe will be a reduced permissible exposure limit (PEL). Yet no change to the limit is necessary because overexposures are rampant, and that’s why the illness is occurring. Rather, better compliance with the existing PEL is needed. These arguments are believed to be why OSHA’s proposal has remained bottled up at OIRA for over two years, an encouraging sign the Administration may never release it, industry says.

NISA’s response, in part, is grounded in pragmatism. OSHA has made the rule a top priority, the organization notes. In addition, President Obama is under heavy pressure from his labor and public health constituents to release it. A regulation thus seems inevitable, so why not seek a compromise about what will be in it? Besides, NISA’s approach is cost-effective. There is also a moral imperative. Silicosis persists, it is preventable, what is now being done isn’t enough, so change is necessary. (OSHA reportedly has estimated its regulation would prevent 60 deaths a year from silicosis and lung cancer.)

OIRA’s deliberations are secret, so it is impossible to know how it views NISA’s initiative, which the association first made public in August 2011. But there is some indication the regulated community is con- cerned. In another industry visit to OIRA in March, the American Foundry Society asserted that so-called ancillary provisions; i.e., those NISA supports, are themselves cost-prohibitive.  The group estimated its members could face $122 million in costs without a housekeeping requirement or $352 million with it.

NISA’s outreach to Congress is not the first time lawmakers have been exposed to the issue. In 2011, industry lobbying led seven Republican representatives to try and get OSHA to disclose details of its proposal. In February, four influential Democratic members of Congress wrote to the Office of Management and Budget, OIRA’s parent, to encourage it to push the proposal out the door.

Whether or not that will happen is anyone’s guess. In its latest regulatory agenda, OSHA set release of its proposal rule for next month. On March 22, Richard Fairfax, a high-ranking OSHA enforcement official, said he thought OSHA’s regulatory agenda was on schedule. MSHA has set August 2013 for release of its own silica rule.

Reprinted with the permission of Sharpe’s Point: On Mine Safety.