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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety regulators are working on plans to beef up civil and criminal enforcement of coal dust standards in the wake of new evidence of industry cheating on rules meant to protect workers from deadly black lung disease.
The U.S. Labor Department and its Mine Safety and Health Administration are putting together a team to examine ways to address regulatory and enforcement weaknesses detailed by a series of stories by NPR News and the Center for Public Integrity, with additional reporting by The Charleston Gazette.
At the same time, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin confirmed that his office is considering potential criminal charges related to dust-sample cheating as part of its probe the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and safety practices at former Massey Energy operations.
"Without going into detail, I can say we've been aware for some time of alleged improprieties in respirable dust sampling, and that's an area that would be of interest in our investigation," Goodwin said on Friday afternoon.
Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially debilitating disease caused by exposure to coal dust.
In 1969, Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal, with a law that required mine operators to take steps to limit exposure. The law greatly reduced black lung among the nation's coal miners.
Still, scientists have found that black lung is on the rise again. Researchers have warned of a doubling of black lung rates since 1997, and of alarming incidence of the disease among younger miners whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.
In West Virginia, more than 2,000 coal miners died of black lung between 1995 and 2004, second only to Pennsylvania, with 4,234 black lung deaths during the same period, according to government data. Nationwide, more than 10,000 miners died from black lung during those years.
A joint investigation by NPR and CPI reported in detail earlier this week on the resurgence of black lung, and with additional reporting by the Gazette, documented widespread cheating by mining companies on dust samples and inaction by federal regulators to address the problem.
Also earlier this week, a former coal miner sued Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources, alleging that dust-sample cheating at the Upper Big Branch Mine and other operations led him to contract the most serious form of black lung.
In the suit, filed by Morgantown lawyer Al Karlin, former miner Terry Evan Lilly alleges mine managers instructed workers to keep dust-sampling pumps away from dusty areas of underground mines, cover up sampling pumps, and take other steps to avoid proper dust measurements that might have revealed air-quality violations.
An Obama administration effort to tighten dust limits and improve other protections for miners -- but not to take over sampling currently done mostly by companies themselves -- has been blocked, at least temporarily, by House Republicans with a budget rider.
MSHA officials on Friday would say only that, "Things continue to move forward toward finalizing the rule."
"Inaction should not be an option," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and ranking minority member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "Republicans should be working with Democrats to clear the bureaucratic hurdles so that long overdue protections can be finalized."
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat whose father was a coal miner, said, "We must all face the disturbing fact that black lung is getting worse not better, and ask ourselves how long will we tolerate deadly working conditions for our nation's miners?
"The crisis is particularly acute because we know there are solutions that will save thousands of lives," said Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.