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Black lung: Preventable scourge

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You would think no miners would suffer the painful, lingering death of coal workers' pneumoconiosis by now. The cause of the disease has been well understood since at least the 1950s. In 1969 Congress passed legislation intended to eliminate the disease. For decades, the number of sufferers did decline.

But for 20 years, the number of black lung cases and deaths has been rising again. Coal miners who have spent their entire careers working under the 1969 law that was supposed to eliminate black lung are developing the disease. Between 1996 and 2005, nearly 10,000 American coal miners died of black lung, 1,800 of them in West Virginia

The rise is partly because the allowed dust limits are too low and partly because preventive measures to enforce existing dust limits are ignored or subverted.

Last year, a joint investigation by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity, with additional reporting by the Gazette, documented widespread cheating by mine owners on coal-dust controls and repeated inaction by regulators.

The Obama administration keeps delaying new rules on the subject. Meanwhile, Sen. Jay Rockefeller recently introduced the Black Lung Health Improvement Act to force the U.S. Department of Labor to finalize tougher limits on coal dust that are long overdue. The bill, now sitting in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also would:

• Increase miners' access to health records during the process of claiming black-lung-benefits.

• Create new research grants.

• Make it easier for long-time miners and their families to collect benefits.

• Require the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study ways to make the application process for black lung claims easier to navigate.

"There was a time when we all thought black lung was going to be eradicated -- that it was a relic of a more dangerous time for our coal miners," Rockefeller said when the bill was introduced. It should be.

By now, black lung should seem as historic and unthinkable as scurvy.

Sen. Rockefeller's bill is a good solution. However, the lesson of the last 40 years is that a law itself, even if it were passed, won't be enough. Laws must be enforced every year, every day.


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