Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., on Thursday gathered black lung victims and miners' health advocates to continue a push for the Obama administration to finalize a rule aimed at ending the deadly diseases.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he would rather see the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration finalize the rule on its own, without legislation that would face strong opposition from the mining industry.
"There is such a power of the coal industry almost totally over one party in Congress and some in my own party that makes change through legislation very difficult," Rockefeller told reporters prior to a black lung "roundtable" discussion in Bluefield.
Rockefeller said that on Wednesday night he called the White House Office of Management and Budget to urge officials there to expedite their review of a draft final rule MSHA filed with OMB two weeks ago.
It's not clear what's in MSHA's final version, but a proposed rule released nearly three years ago would cut in half the legal limit for dust that causes the disease.
"That standard has stood for a while and it's completely outdated," Rockefeller said. Rockefeller, who is not seeking re-election next year, has said that he plans to focus on several key coal-mining issues - including black lung, miner safety, and protecting pensions and health-care for retirees from bankrupt Patriot Coal - during the time he has left in the Senate.
In a meeting at the Bluefield Area Arts Center, Rockefeller gathered around a table with about a dozen black-lung victims, doctors, public health professionals and mine safety lawyers. About 50 spectators filled the room.
Just about everyone had a story about intolerably dusty conditions in a mine or terribly difficult legal hurdles to win federal black-lung benefits.
Terry Fike recounted for Rockefeller how her husband, Chester, died in December after working 35 years in the mines.
"He knew there was dust and he knew there were going to be problems down the line," Mrs. Fike said. "But he said he still had to make a living for us."
Another roundtable participant, Vernon Bailey, warned fellow miners to be ready for a battle if they apply for black-lung benefits.
"They'll spend $100,000 on lawyers to keep you from getting benefits for a disease they caused," Bailey said.
Rockefeller noted hat President Obama's health-care plan helped ease the process for some black-lung victims to get benefits, and said he's proposing new legislation to further help with such claims.Several times, Rockefeller also addressed questions about the campaign by coal industry publicists and some regional political leaders to paint the Obama administration's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policies as a "war on coal."
"The president hasn't waged a 'war on coal'," Rockefeller said. "Coal companies have made war on their own future."
Rockefeller complained the industry has done little to help foster compromise on dealing with climate change or to push efforts to find cost-effective ways to capture greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"All they can do is attack EPA and attack the president," Rockefeller said. "That's their whole deal. They suggest nothing. They have no ideas."