Coal Tattoo

House GOP wants to keep block on black lung rules

A marcher holds a grim message during a black lung rally. Photographer and date unknown, courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries.

Language was released this morning for the Republican House leadership’s proposed budget for the next year for the Department of Labor, and there’s an interesting little tidbit stuck in there that says:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to continue the development of or to promulgate, administer, enforce, or otherwise implement the Lowering Miners’ Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors regulation (Regulatory Identification Number 1219-AB64) being developed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the Department of Labor.

Not clear enough for you? Here’s what the House Appropriations Committee said in a news release:

The legislation also includes a prohibition on funding for MSHA to continue the development or the implementation of a coal mine dust regulation.

That’s right. The MSHA budget being proposed by the House GOP leaders would continue to block — for at least the 2013 budget year — the agency from finalizing landmark rules aimed at trying to end black lung, a deadly disease that’s on the rise again and has reached what experts call epidemic proportions among coal miners in parts of Central Appalachia. A House committee Democratic summary of the GOP proposal puts it this way, listing the MSHA language as one of a number of “highly controversial partisan riders”:

“Black Lung” Disease Prevention: Prohibition on any further work to develop or issue in final form proposed rules to better prevent “black lung” disease among coal miners.

As we’ve previously reported in the Gazette, the MSHA plan is already on hold at least through mid-August, when the U.S. Government Accountability Office is due to release a congressionally mandated review of the agency rulemaking. That Gazette story was part of a series of black lung articles that featured the results of a joint investigation by NPR News and the Center for Public Integrity that revealed the outrageous facts about black lung:

Incidence of the disease that steals the breath of coal miners doubled in the last decade, according to data analyzed by epidemiologist Scott Laney at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) … Cases of the worst stage of the disease have quadrupled since the 1980s in a triangular region of Appalachia stretching from eastern Kentucky through southern West Virginia and into southwestern Virginia.

Black lung experts and mine safety advocates have warned of the resurgence of the disease since 1995. New reporting by CPI and NPR reveals the extent to which federal regulators and the mining industry failed to protect coal miners in the intervening years.

An analysis of federal data by CPI and NPR also shows that the mining industry and federal regulators have known for more than two decades that coal miners were breathing excessive amounts of the coal mine dust that causes black lung. CPI and NPR also found that the system for controlling coal mine dust is plagued by weak regulations and inaccurate reporting that sometimes includes fraud.

“This is clearly a public health epidemic,” Laney says. “This is a rare disease that should not be occurring. It’s occurring at a high proportion of individuals who are being exposed.”

UPDATED:  Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, issued this statement:

“House Republicans’ proposal to stop modern protections against black lung disease for our nation’s miners is outrageous and should be defeated.

 “Republicans are sending a message that profits for their wealthy campaign contributors are more important than the lungs and lives of America’s coal miners. The recent investigative report by several news organizations on the devastating impact of black lung and the lengths that some mine operations go to circumvent their responsibility to protect miners should have been a wakeup call. It’s clear that voices wealthier than coal miner families drowned out that message. 

 “The facts are indisputable – black lung is on the rise again and some mine operators are exploiting loopholes in obsolete rules to evade compliance. The present system is badly broken and improvements are desperately needed. It’s time to move forward on modern protections based on years of careful scientific study. Blocking efforts by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to modernize miner protections will only cost lives, careers, and family income for those who go underground every day.”


Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued this statement:

It’s outrageous that House Republicans are trying to stop MSHA from doing its job: protecting miners. New regulations to fight black lung are essential – especially when we know that black lung rates are rising in a new generation of miners. Last year, the House demanded a temporary delay of these protections for miners – and now they want to block them altogether. There is no greater priority for me than the health and safety of coal miners.”