By the early 1990s, one problem became obvious. The initial method of calculating dust levels for compliance purposes didn't work. Federal inspectors were averaging multiple samples taken over different shifts. Experts say this averaging allowed lower dust measurements on one shift to mask higher levels that miners were actually being exposed to on the job.
So in November 1991, MSHA announced its inspectors would begin citing mine operators for dust violations based on "single-shift sampling," or the results of dust tests performed during individual shifts, rather than averages from numerous days.
One mine operator, Keystone Coal Mining Corp., challenged three violations issued to it under this new policy. A three-year legal battle ensued. MSHA lost in 1994, not because the single-shift sampling method was wrong, but because agency officials had instituted it through a policy, rather than a former rulemaking.
Later in 1994, MSHA took that ruling to heart, and issued a formal rule to adopt single-shift sampling. The National Mining Association filed a lawsuit to block the rule. Another nearly four-year court battle followed, ending in September 1998, when a federal appeals court threw out the MSHA rule, saying the agency improperly did not consider its "economic feasibility."
At the same time, efforts by then-MSHA chief Davitt McAteer to focus on black lung -- and many other issues -- were diverted.
When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House of Representatives, among their government streamlining proposals was to eliminate MSHA. Mine safety duties would be given instead to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, weakening the greater protections federal law gives to miners. McAteer and other top Labor Department officials spent years fighting the change. They eventually won, but the damage to their agenda -- including black lung reforms -- was significant.
"It was dramatic," McAteer recalled. "You spent your time not at the task of improving mine safety and health, but defending yourself against what they were trying to do."
Two years after another legal defeat on single-shift sampling, McAteer's MSHA in July 2000 published another rule aimed at that reform and at forcing mine operators to verify their plans to control dust in underground mines.
Main and other UMW officials felt it wasn't strong enough. Among other things, while they favored an MSHA takeover of the sampling process, they were concerned that -- with inadequate staffing and money -- the agency would never take as many samples as the industry had on its own. At least in part because of the union's opposition, the Clinton White House never finalized the rule.
After George W. Bush became president in 2001, he appointed longtime coal operator Dave Lauriski to run MSHA. Among Lauriski's first moves was to halt work on more than a dozen agency regulations, including McAteer's black-lung reforms.
But in March 2003, Lauriski proposed his own version of a plan to end black lung. It contained some components of previous proposals, such as single-shift sampling and requiring operators to verify dust-control measures.
Labor leaders and their friends in Congress, though, jumped to oppose Lauriski's plan. They complained language intended to foster use of dust-control breathing helmets was really a sneak attack to weaken the existing coal-dust limits, which miner health advocates said were already too weak.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., went so far as to call for an ethics investigation, citing a Gazette-Mail report about how Lauriski's plan was similar to one he pushed when he worked in the coal industry.
Lauriski defended his plan and observed, "Changing the status quo often sparks protest." The political heat was too much, though, and the Bush administration pulled the plug.
McAteer said the inability of multiple administrations from both parties to implement even the black lung reforms that they all agreed on shows how broken the government's system for protecting worker health and safety really is.
"Even if you recognize a very serious and obvious worker health problem, the system just can't get anything done about it," McAteer said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.
Our stories about black lung were jointly reported by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR News as part of "Hard Labor," an occasional series on health, safety and economic threats to U.S. workers. Additional reporting was provided by Charleston Gazette staff writer Ken Ward Jr.
Read more in Monday's Gazette and on the CPI website, http://www.iwatchnews.org/.Hear more about black lung Monday on NPR's All Things Considered and Tuesday on NPR's Morning Edition. Additional NPR stories are available at www.npr.org.