But in Congress, some Republican lawmakers quickly began to line up to oppose the MSHA plan.
In February 2011, Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., blamed black lung disease on coal miners themselves.
"I see a lot of patients with workplace related respiratory problems, some of which, to put it bluntly, are their own issue, because they refuse to wear safety equipment regardless of whether there are regulations in place to do so or not," said Bucshon, whose father and grandfathers were coal miners.
And in April 2011, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., complained that the MSHA plan would be too costly for the industry.
"Every regulation doesn't save lives," Paul said. "There is a point or a balancing act between when a regulation becomes burdensome and our energy production is stifled. We have to assess the cost."
MSHA had, in fact, assessed the costs, estimating compliance costs for coal operators at between $72.4 million and $93.2 million for the first year, and between $40 million and $44.5 million each year after that.
Agency officials put the annual benefits -- from thousands of reduced illnesses and deaths -- far higher: Between $99 million and $197 million per year, depending on how the figure is calculated.
Paul also argued the government has done "a pretty good job" of fighting black lung. He said cases of the disease had declined over time, but ignored the most recent evidence of a resurgence of black lung.
By the fall of 2011, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., was pushing an amendment to the Labor Department's budget bill to block the MSHA proposal. Rehberg acted as the National Mining Association pressed questions about data MSHA used to design its proposal, and while coal companies including Murray Energy and Arch Coal helped fund his campaign to try to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
By mid-December, the measure had made it into the final budget bill, a move that gave the Obama administration little choice but to go along with it.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., praised the amendment, saying it prevented MSHA "from shutting down mines around the country and handing pink slips to hard-working miners in southern and eastern Kentucky."
The United Mine Workers blasted the amendment.
"Including this language in the bill will have the effect of sentencing more miners to die a painful and premature death, choking on their last breath," said union spokesman Phil Smith.
Later, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said in January 2012 that the budget amendment would not restrict her agency from finalizing the black lung rule -- only from implementing or enforcing it. But so far, MSHA has not sent a final rule to the White House for its approval.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.