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Republican Lawmakers Seek To Block Funding On Black Lung Regulation

Jul 17, 2012
Originally published on July 17, 2012 6:33 pm

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have inserted into a broad appropriations bill language that would block funding for a Labor Department effort to reduce the occurrence of black lung, the disease that afflicts coal miners exposed to excessive mine dust.

The bill covers appropriations for Fiscal Year 2013 for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. Tucked away deep inside the measure is this language:

"SEC. 118. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to continue the development of or to promulgate, administer, enforce, or otherwise implement the Lowering Miners' Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, Including 20 Continuous Personal Dust Monitors regulation (Regulatory Identification Number 1219-AB64) being developed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the Department of Labor."

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposes cutting in half the limits on coal miners' exposure to coal dust. The agency's proposed rulemaking also establishes the use of Personal Dust Monitors which measure dust exposure in real time.

The 2013 fiscal year begins Oct. 1. A rider for FY 2012 blocked the rulemaking until the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issues a report on the validity of research that shows black lung disease has doubled in the last decade. The data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also shows that diagnoses of the worst stages of the disease have quadrupled since the 1980's in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia.

The GAO report is expected to be released sometime in the next month.

NIOSH studies also show that the disease is striking younger miners and progressing more quickly to the most serious stages of black lung.

The summary of the legislation issued by Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee includes this comment:

"Recent reporting by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity has highlighted the need for more effective 'black lung' disease prevention efforts as there has been a resurgence of the disease among coal miners."

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) reported last week that the system that is supposed to control miners' exposure to coal dust and silica is plagued by loopholes in the law, weak enforcement and cheating by some mining companies.

The proposed rulemaking permits self-policing by mining companies.

NPR and CPI are seeking comment from lawmakers and others focused on black lung and will post those comments as we get them.

Update at 6:29 p.m. ET. Hope Republicans Will Reconsider:

Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Committee, said this is an issue that should be above partisanship.

"The lives and health of miners and their families should not be a partisan issue," he said in a statement. "Last year, Republicans required a GAO study to examine the science underlying the increased incidence of black lung, but now, they are attempting to kill the proposed rule without even waiting for the results of the study they requested. I hope that the House Republicans will reconsider this deeply misguided proposal, and join me in calling for quick action to keep our miners safe."

Update at 3:32 p.m. ET. A 'Death Sentence' For Miners:

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), calls the funding language "a potential death sentence for thousands of American miners."

The UMWA has had its own objections to MSHA's proposed rulemaking and has joined with one industry group in saying the proposal doesn't go far enough in protecting miners from coal mine dust.

But Roberts adds, "We know that the only way to end this disease is to reduce miners' exposure to that dust."

Roberts is also disappointed in the language limiting funding for deployment of Personal Dust Monitors. "If this language is allowed to stand, we will not have the benefit of this new technology, meaning miners will continue to be at risk of this always-fatal disease... Preventing black lung isn't a matter of over-regulation. It's a matter of life and death."

Update at 1:15 p.m. ET. Democrat Criticizes Any Attempt To Block The Regulations:

George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is outraged by the rider.

"The facts are indisputable — black lung is on the rise again and some mine operators are exploiting loopholes in obsolete rules to evade compliance," Miller says, in reference to reporting by NPR and CPI. "The present system is badly broken and improvements are desperately needed. ... Blocking efforts by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to modernize miner protections will only cost lives, careers, and family income for those who go underground every day."

Update at 12:23 p.m. Why Block The Regulations? Mining Association Says MSHA Didn't Consider "Constructive" Proposals:

The National Mining Association (NMA) refers to the funding withdrawal language as the "Rehberg Amendment." Denny Rehberg is a Montana Republican who chairs the House Committee on Labor, Health and Human Service and Education. NPR and CPI have asked Rehberg's office for comment.

NMA spokesman Luke Popovich says the group "sympathizes with the chairman's frustration at MSHA's apparent unwillingness to consider seriously the constructive proposals we have made to address this problem directly and improve miners' health."

NMA believes the MSHA approach doesn't do enough to control miners' exposure to coal dust and wants the following actions added to the agency's rulemaking:

· Encourage the use of proven technology — (supplied air helmets,) used in occupations other than mining — to provide miners with a stream of fresh air across their breathing zone;

· Allow work practices that permit miners to be rotated across alternate work locations to minimize exposure during the shift;

· Require that all miners participate in an x-ray surveillance program so that intervention measures can be taken promptly should a miner develop respiratory impairment during his career;

· Recognize that longer working periods impact exposure by adopting a weekly, cumulative dose exposure limit rather than the current shift-by-shift approach;

· Revise the rule to address the localized nature of the problem (as identified by NIOSH x-ray surveillance data) and the specific conditions it represents rather than impose a general requirement across the entire industry.

· Complete the additional research and development needed to ensure integrity of personal dust monitors.

One mine safety advocate condemns the "Rehberg Amendment" as "callous, heartless and pathetic."

"Appalachian coal miners whose pickup trucks sport 'Friends of Coal' stickers might ought to re-assess who their true friends are," says Tony Oppegard, a former Kentucky and federal mine safety regulator now representing coal miners in lawsuits against mining companies. "It's certainly not Republicans who stand silent in the midst of a health crisis," Oppegard adds. "Our nation needs fewer 'Friends of Coal' and more 'Friends of Coal Miners'."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.