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Rockefeller pushes Obama administration to finalize black lung rule

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., on Thursday gathered black lung victims and miners' health advocates to continue a push for the Obama administration to finalize a rule aimed at ending the deadly diseases.

Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he would rather see the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration finalize the rule on its own, without legislation that would face strong opposition from the mining industry.

"There is such a power of the coal industry almost totally over one party in Congress and some in my own party that makes change through legislation very difficult," Rockefeller told reporters prior to a black lung "roundtable" discussion in Bluefield.

Rockefeller said that on Wednesday night he called the White House Office of Management and Budget to urge officials there to expedite their review of a draft final rule MSHA filed with OMB two weeks ago.

It's not clear what's in MSHA's final version, but a proposed rule released nearly three years ago would cut in half the legal limit for dust that causes the disease.

"That standard has stood for a while and it's completely outdated," Rockefeller said. Rockefeller, who is not seeking re-election next year, has said that he plans to focus on several key coal-mining issues - including black lung, miner safety, and protecting pensions and health-care for retirees from bankrupt Patriot Coal - during the time he has left in the Senate.

In a meeting at the Bluefield Area Arts Center, Rockefeller gathered around a table with about a dozen black-lung victims, doctors, public health professionals and mine safety lawyers. About 50 spectators filled the room.

Just about everyone had a story about intolerably dusty conditions in a mine or terribly difficult legal hurdles to win federal black-lung benefits.

Terry Fike recounted for Rockefeller how her husband, Chester, died in December after working 35 years in the mines.

"He knew there was dust and he knew there were going to be problems down the line," Mrs. Fike said. "But he said he still had to make a living for us."

Another roundtable participant, Vernon Bailey, warned fellow miners to be ready for a battle if they apply for black-lung benefits.

"They'll spend $100,000 on lawyers to keep you from getting benefits for a disease they caused," Bailey said.

Rockefeller noted hat President Obama's health-care plan helped ease the process for some black-lung victims to get benefits, and said he's proposing new legislation to further help with such claims.Several times, Rockefeller also addressed questions about the campaign by coal industry publicists and some regional political leaders to paint the Obama administration's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policies as a "war on coal."

"The president hasn't waged a 'war on coal'," Rockefeller said. "Coal companies have made war on their own future."

Rockefeller complained the industry has done little to help foster compromise on dealing with climate change or to push efforts to find cost-effective ways to capture greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"All they can do is attack EPA and attack the president," Rockefeller said. "That's their whole deal. They suggest nothing. They have no ideas."

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."


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