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Spending bill delays effort to end black lung

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A government spending package agreed to this week by the Obama administration and Congress contains language aimed at blocking -- or at least delaying -- new limits on coal dust aimed at ending deadly black lung disease.

The measure would prohibit the Labor Department from any spending aimed at finalizing the proposal prior to a new review of the matter by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

New limits on coal dust are key to a plan by the department's Mine Safety and Health Administration to end black lung, a debilitating disease that killed nearly 10,000 coal miners nationwide between 1996 and 2005. The spending bill would block the new limits until the GAO "evaluates the completeness of MSHA's data collection and sampling" of current trends in the occurrence of black lung.

An earlier version of the spending bill would have blocked the MSHA proposal altogether, rather than delaying it for the GAO evaluation.

Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union, said the UMW supports the collection and analysis of more data, but sees no reason "to hold up implementation of a rule that will take tremendous strides to keeping coal miners alive and disease-free.

"We can do both at the same time," Smith said. "Including this language in the bill will have the effect of sentencing more miners to die a painful and premature death, choking on their last breath. That may not be what the lawmakers who slipped this into the legislation intended, but it will be the effect."

Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is actually a collection of debilitating and potentially fatal ailments caused by breathing coal dust.

In 1969, Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal, with a law that required mine operators to take steps to limit exposure. The law greatly reduced black lung among the nation's coal miners.

Still, scientists have found that black lung is on the rise again. Researchers have warned of a doubling of black lung rates since 1997, and of alarming incidents of the disease among younger miners whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.

In West Virginia, more than 1,800 coal miners died of black lung between 1996 and 2005, second only to Pennsylvania, with 3,800 black lung deaths during the same period, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

In October 2010, MSHA proposed to toughen limits on coal dust exposure as part of a broad plan Obama administration officials hope will eliminate black lung. The report was based in large part on recommendations made in 1995 and 1996 by NIOSH and a Labor Department advisory panel that urged MSHA to tighten the legal limit for coal dust.

MSHA chief Joe Main also proposed to require more advanced continuous monitoring and more accurate sampling methods to better estimate exposure and protect miners from the disease.

Coal industry officials and some of their political allies have criticized the Obama proposal, though. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has said there's no need for the tougher rules because the industry has already done "a pretty good job" of dealing with black lung.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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