Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust.
One goal of the 1969 federal coal-mine safety law was to eliminate black lung. Deaths declined for years, but recently, since 2003, researchers have been documenting an alarming increased incidence of the disease in younger miners, whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.
Scientists have also been documenting growing evidence that dust exposure in mining is linked to a broad variety of respiratory problems, including lung cancer and emphysema. And they believe that modern mining practices - sometimes using advanced longwall machines and targeting ever-thinner seams of coal - generates huge amounts of dust that, when not properly contained, strangles miners' respiratory systems.
Between 1996 and 2005, nearly 10,000 coal miners nationwide died of black lung, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. West Virginia recorded the second-highest black lung deaths of any state, with more than 1,800 during that period, according to NIOSH.
Among other things, the proposal MSHA made in October 2010 would cut the legal dust limit in underground mines from 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter of air to 1.0 milligrams per cubic meter of air. A Labor Department advisory committee recommended such a change in 1996, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been urging since 1995 that the limit be tightened.
"It would reduce the dust down to where it would significantly reduce -- not totally eliminate -- the number of miners who get black lung," said Dr. Donald Rasmussen, a longtime black lung doctor from Beckley.
Rasmussen recalled that when Congress was debating the national mine safety law in 1969, many in the coal industry objected that the measure would wipe out coal mining entirely -- a prediction that obviously never came true.
Complaints about the potential economic costs of the latest MSHA black lung proposal have resurfaced in recent months. Last week, a Kentucky congressman worried that trying to save miners from black lung might cost them their jobs. And at the request of House Republican leaders, the U.S. Government Accountability Office is performing a second examination of the data and analysis MSHA performed in writing its proposed rule, GAO officials confirmed this week. Under orders from Congress, a previous GAO study delayed MSHA from finalizing its rule for at least eight months.
Rockefeller scoffed at the industry concerns, saying, "If they can't do it safely, then they shouldn't be in the business in the first place."
MSHA said its proposed rule would cost coal operators between $72.4 million and $93.2 million 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 figures are calculated.
Still, Dr. Dan Doyle, director of the New River Health Center, a black lung clinic, said such matters don't boil down to simple economic equations.
"It sounds like an economic question, but I think it's more of a moral question -- is it necessary to sacrifice human life to mine coal?"
No coal industry officials were among the panelists at Rockefeller's roundtable, though the National Mining Association has said any increase in black lung is a regional problem that should not be addressed through a nationwide dust rule.
But Anita Wolfe, a NIOSH public health analyst, told Rockefeller on Thursday that black lung problems stretch beyond well-documented "hot spots" in Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia.
"This is a national problem," Wolfe said. "Granted, we see higher rates of black lung in Appalachia, but we see the cases of this disease in every state.
"This disease is preventable," Wolfe said. "In this day and age, with the technology we have and what we know about the disease, it shouldn't be happening."