Read more:The new face of black lung
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For more than a quarter-century, government efforts to end deadly black lung disease have hit various brick walls, built by opposition from one side or the other.
Industry lobbyists object that tougher dust limits and more rigorous sampling requirements go too far. Labor leaders complain those same proposals are far too weak.
Miners are left with the same system that experts have agreed hasn't worked for decades. And thousands of those miners have paid with their health or their lives.
"We can't get a regulation out to save our souls," said former federal Mine Safety and Health Administration staffer Celeste Monforton, who now studies workplace health issues and advocates for workers and their families.
Take the case of the Obama administration's MSHA chief, Joe Main.
About a year into his tenure as the nation's top mine safety regulator, Main announced an ambitious plan he said was aimed at ending black lung.
Main proposed to tighten the legal limit on dust that causes black lung, to require more accurate continuous personal dust monitors, and to reform sampling methods and enforcement of dust limits.
"I hope the miners and the mining community embrace this approach," Main, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, told reporters in October 2010. "It is the right thing to do."
A decade earlier, Main was director of safety for the United Mine Workers union when the Clinton administration announced its plan to end black lung. It included a government takeover of dust monitoring and similar changes to sampling techniques, but no tightening of the dust limit.
Main said the Clinton proposal didn't go far enough. In particular, the UMW was upset that the government monitoring would involve fewer samples, because of budget and staffing constraints at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Main urged MSHA to scrap the proposal and start over.
"We believe that MSHA needs to go back to the drawing board and come out with a proposal that reflects the kind of things that miners have wanted and needed for many, many years," Main said during an August 2000 public hearing.
The UMW's opposition came as the Clinton White House was winding down, scrambling to decide which -- if any -- new initiatives to try to finish up before leaving office. And labor resistance was enough to kill the black lung plan.
Over and over, that's been the story of government efforts to improve the system intended to protect miners and end black lung. One proposal or another has died, been dropped or thrown out in court after one side or the other wasn't satisfied with the details.
Industry groups have blocked rule changes with lawsuits. Labor has used its muscle with Democrats in Congress or the White House. Political leaders have stepped in to keep MSHA, the expert agency charged with protecting miners, from acting at all.
"It's pretty much every problem in the book that comes up during the regulatory process," said Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a left-leaning think tank.
When Congress passed the federal coal-mine safety law in 1969, the black-lung protection provisions were supposed to be flexible. Things like the legal dust limit, the testing procedures, and the enforcement scheme, were to change over time as experts learned more about the disease and how to prevent it.
But the intent was clear: Congress wanted black lung to end.
Under the law, MSHA was supposed to make sure "to the greatest extent possible, that working conditions in each underground coal mine are sufficiently free of respirable dust to permit each miner the opportunity to work underground during the period of his entire life without incurring any disability from pneumoconiosis or any other occupation-related disease during or at the end of such period."