CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Across the Appalachian coalfields these days, it's hard to go anywhere without hearing about what mining lobbyists and political leaders call the Obama administration's "war on coal."
Radio ads blare the message of lost jobs and stalled permits. Lawmakers propose measures to block U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution rules. Industry lobby groups and state officials pursue lawsuits to stop new water quality guidance on mountaintop removal mining.
Seldom mentioned by coal industry advocates is a little-noticed move by their allies in Congress to delay -- and potentially end altogether -- another Obama effort, this one aimed at saving the lives of thousands of coal miners.
It happened in mid-December 2011, in a legislative maneuver that got little media attention. The tactic and its potential impacts certainly avoided the sort of outcry that has come each time the EPA proposed new restrictions on mountaintop removal mining or the disposal of toxic coal ash.
Lawmakers added language to a Department of Labor budget bill that barred the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration from implementing or enforcing a proposal to reduce miners' exposure to the coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease.
A House Appropriations Committee summary listed the black lung language among several provisions "to reduce government overreach, rein in excessive regulation, and help foster a good economic environment for job growth."
Buried in the 165-page legislation, the measure demanded an audit of MSHA data showing black lung still exists, and an assessment of the agency's methodology in writing its proposal.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office was ordered to complete that study within 240 days. MSHA can't act on the rule until after that deadline expires on Aug. 19. A GAO spokesman said the agency is on track to issue its report sometime in August.
But advocates for miners' health are worried the delays will end the rulemaking, especially if President Obama doesn't win re-election in November.
"I'm concerned about whether it will get through or whether it will be watered down," said Dr. Robert Cohen, a Chicago physician and leading expert on black lung.
Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially debilitating disease caused by exposure to 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 incidence of the disease among younger miners whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.
In West Virginia, more than 2,000 coal miners died of black lung between 1995 and 2004, second only to Pennsylvania, with 4,234 black lung deaths during the same period, according to government data. Nationwide, more than 10,000 miners died from black lung during those years.
Over the years, numerous reports and studies have recommended steps the coal industry could take to better protect miners. Two years ago, MSHA chief Joe Main proposed new rules based on such recommendations. Scientists and worker health advocates widely praised the MSHA proposal.