Scientists have found, though, 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.
A joint investigation by National Public Radio and The Center for Public Integrity reported in July on the resurgence of black lung and, with additional reporting by The Charleston Gazette, documented widespread cheating by mining companies on dust samples and inaction by federal regulators over the past quarter-century to address the problem.
Two years ago, MSHA proposed new rules based on such recommendations. Among other steps, the MSHA proposal, issued in October 2010, would reduce the legal limit for dust in underground mines from 2.0 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air to 1.0 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air. A Labor Department advisory commission recommended the change in 1996, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been urging since 1995 that the limit be tightened.
Industry officials argue that recent increases in black lung rates are a regional problem and don't require a new nationwide rule. On Friday, the National Mining Association said it is "very disappointed" that the GAO did not review more recent black lung incidence data that became available after MSHA published its proposal. However, the GAO report itself indicates the office examined a NIOSH report that was published in April 2011 and included that more recent data.
Carol Raulston, as spokeswoman for the industry group, said the GAO's review of that more recent data "lacks specificity, which makes it impossible to ascertain what their review fully considered, the level of detail employed and the analytic methodology they used in reaching their conclusion."
Late last year, Republican House members -- including Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and subcommittee Chairman Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. -- slipped into MSHA's current year budget a provision that blocked the new black lung rules until the GAO completed an analysis of the MSHA plan. Last month, House Republicans sought to extend their hold on the rule.
In a Friday statement, House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., indicated he remains unsatisfied with the MSHA proposal and called on the agency to bring together industry and labor officials to work out a deal.
"A responsible, comprehensive solution can be advanced if all stakeholders come to the table and work together," Kline said.
In late June, though, Kline and other Republican committee members voted down a procedural move by Miller aimed at pledging that the committee would move some sort of mine safety legislation -- perhaps including black lung language -- before the end of the year.
"Despite mounting evidence of the dangers of black lung disease, Republicans in the House continue to try to block these safety improvements," said Rockefeller, whose separate mine safety bill includes a mandate for tougher black lung protections. "We must act now, before we lose more West Virginia coal miners to this disease."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.