CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tours the coalfields in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia, he promises to reverse Obama administration environmental regulations the industry says are costing miners their jobs.
But miners seldom hear that a Romney administration is also likely to abandon new rules and reduce safety enforcement meant to protect their lives.
As part of his campaign, the Republican nominee has embraced changes in federal practices that would block new worker safety and health standards.
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is among the GOP House leadership that has for two years blocked a coal-mine safety reform bill and threatened to end Obama efforts to fight deadly black lung disease.
And Ryan authored a federal budget plan containing budget cuts that are severe enough that critics say they would gut U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration enforcement.
"When you hear these guys talking about over-regulation, they're not just talking about environmental regulations," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union. "They're talking about health and safety regulations."
Earlier this year, the National Mining Association unveiled its own program aimed at, within five years, eliminating all mining fatalities and reducing the rate of mining injuries by 50 percent.
"This is a journey we are taking together, and we look forward to the important benefits we can achieve for the entire mining community," said association President Hal Quinn.
But mining industry officials have opposed some key MSHA proposals under Obama, including rules aimed at reducing dust that causes black lung, requiring "proximity devices" to keep underground equipment from running over miners, and toughening enforcement on operators that commit a "pattern of violations." MSHA has not finalized any of those proposals, and most have been pending for more than a year.
After backing Obama in 2008, the UMW has not endorsed either candidate this election, but Smith says the union would have liked to hear both sides talk more about how they would protect miners' lives and health.
"What's the point of having a job if you're going to get killed or have a crippling injury?" Smith said.
Most mine safety watchdogs give Obama generally strong marks in many areas, but Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, says there's one simple reason the president hasn't campaigned on the issue.
"They're hesitant to say anything, because they had the largest disaster in 40 years during their time in office," McAteer said.
On April 5, 2010, a huge explosion ripped through Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, killing 29 miners at the non-union operation.
Multiple investigation reports blamed the disaster on a deliberate effort by Massey to evade federal mine safety rules.
But the disaster also led to a long series of embarrassing disclosures about MSHA's failure to take adequate enforcement measures at Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion.
Republicans in Congress, with industry backing, have seized on MSHA's missteps at Upper Big Branch to argue that the agency needs to improve enforcement of existing rules before lawmakers should give it additional authority under a safety reform package promoted by the administration, congressional Democrats and the UMW.
"The strongest laws on the books will not protect miners if those laws go unenforced," said Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Eight years ago, Sen. John Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign made a pitch for coalfield votes by criticizing the Bush administration for putting a mining company official in charge of MSHA and cutting the agency's budget.
Then in 2008, the UMW cited Obama's commitment to coal mine safety and health as part of the reason it endorsed the Democrat over Republican John McCain.
Obama put the UMW's longtime safety director, Joe Main, in charge of MSHA. After his confirmation in October 2009, Main announced an ambitious agenda that included a long-stalled effort to end deadly black lung disease.