GOP seeks to kill black lung reform

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U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, is chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations.

AP Photo/Ed Reinke

House Republicans inserted language in a budget bill unveiled Tuesday that would kill a proposed rule to protect coal miners from dust that causes black lung.

Democrats on the House Committee on Appropriations objected, saying in a statement, “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.”

The Center-NPR investigation found that, after decades of decline, black lung is making a comeback, increasingly afflicting younger miners with a more severe, faster-progressing form of the disease. The system for monitoring miners’ exposure to dust is riddled with loopholes, and regulators have sometimes failed to enforce even these rules. Mining companies have taken advantage of a self-policing system to manipulate dust sampling results for decades.

In 2010, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed a rule that would close some loopholes, though it would still leave much of the sampling in the hands of mining companies. Last December, House Republicans inserted language in a previous budget bill that would have barred any money from being spent to implement the rule until the Government Accountability Office evaluated whether the proposal was necessary. That study is on track to be released in August.

The insertion of a paragraph into the new Labor Department’s budget bill goes further, barring the agency from using any money to continue developing the rule, issuing it or enforcing it.

Both Denny Rehberg, the Montana Republican who wrote the bill, and Hal Rogers, chairman of the appropriations committee, are up for re-election this year, and both count the coal mining industry among their top donors. Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, has long been a champion of the industry, and mining companies have donated more to his campaigns over the years – about $378,000 – than any other industry. Neither Rehberg nor Rogers responded immediately to requests for comment Tuesday.

The National Mining Association said in a statement that it “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.” The association, which represents primarily large mining companies, believes the increase in black lung is a regional problem concentrated in central Appalachia and not one that requires imposing new rules across the country. It has suggested a number of changes to the proposed rule.

Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in a statement: “Republicans are sending a message that profits for their wealthy campaign contributors are more important than the lungs and lives of America’s coal miners. The recent investigative report by several news organizations on the devastating impact of black lung and the lengths that some mine operations go to circumvent their responsibility to protect miners should have been a wakeup call. It’s clear that voices wealthier than coal miner families drowned out that message."