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GOP budget proposal would block black lung reforms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House Republicans are seeking to extend their measure that blocks the Obama administration from moving forward with a new rule aimed at combating the resurgence of deadly black lung disease, which experts say has reached epidemic proportions in the Appalachian coalfields.

The GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday released its draft of the 2013 budget bill for the Department of Labor, which includes the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

If approved, the language would forbid MSHA from using any funds from its budget to finalize its October 2010 proposal to tighten legal coal-dust limits and improve other protections for miners.

"House Republicans' proposal to stop modern protections against black lung disease for our nation's miners is outrageous and should be defeated," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said the budget measure "amounts to nothing more than a potential death sentence for thousands of American miners."

"Preventing black lung isn't a matter of overregulation," Roberts said. "It's a matter of life and death."

Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the industry group "sympathizes" with the GOP's "frustration at MSHA's apparent unwillingness to consider seriously the constructive proposals we have made to address this problem directly and improve miners' health."

Industry officials argue that recent increases in black lung rates are a regional problem and don't require a new nationwide rule. Industry supporters in Congress have claimed that black lung rates have not increased and have blamed miners for not protecting themselves from excess dust.

Late last year, Republican House members -- including Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and subcommittee Chairman Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. -- slipped into MSHA's budget a provision blocking the new black lung rules until the U.S. Government Accountability Office completed an analysis of the MSHA plan. That report is due out by mid-August, but the new budget language would block MSHA from acting through at least September 2013.

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.

Now, scientists have found that the incidence of black lung is increasing 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.

A joint investigation by National Public Radio and The Center for Public Integrity reported in detail earlier this week on the resurgence of black lung and, with additional reporting by the Gazette, documented widespread cheating by mining companies on dust samples and inaction by federal regulators to address the problem.

"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," Miller said. "It's clear that voices wealthier than coal miner families drowned out that message."

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


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