CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Across the Appalachian coalfields these days, it's hard to go anywhere without hearing about what mining lobbyists and political leaders call the Obama administration's "war on coal."
Radio ads blare the message of lost jobs and stalled permits. Lawmakers propose measures to block U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution rules. Industry lobby groups and state officials pursue lawsuits to stop new water quality guidance on mountaintop removal mining.
Seldom mentioned by coal industry advocates is a little-noticed move by their allies in Congress to delay — and potentially end altogether — another Obama effort, this one aimed at saving the lives of thousands of coal miners.
It happened in mid-December 2011, in a legislative maneuver that got little media attention. The tactic and its potential impacts certainly avoided the sort of outcry that has come each time the EPA proposed new restrictions on mountaintop removal mining or the disposal of toxic coal ash.
Lawmakers added language to a Department of Labor budget bill that barred the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration from implementing or enforcing a proposal to reduce miners' exposure to the coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease.
A House Appropriations Committee summary listed the black lung language among several provisions "to reduce government overreach, rein in excessive regulation, and help foster a good economic environment for job growth."
Buried in the 165-page legislation, the measure demanded an audit of MSHA data showing black lung still exists, and an assessment of the agency's methodology in writing its proposal.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office was ordered to complete that study within 240 days. MSHA can't act on the rule until after that deadline expires on Aug. 19. A GAO spokesman said the agency is on track to issue its report sometime in August.
But advocates for miners' health are worried the delays will end the rulemaking, especially if President Obama doesn't win re-election in November.
"I'm concerned about whether it will get through or whether it will be watered down," said Dr. Robert Cohen, a Chicago physician and leading expert on black lung.
Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially debilitating disease caused by exposure to coal dust.
In 1969, Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal, with a law that required mine operators to take steps to limit exposure. The law greatly reduced black lung among the nation's coal miners.
Still, scientists have found that black lung is on the rise again. Researchers have warned of a doubling of black lung rates since 1997, and of alarming incidence of the disease among younger miners whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.
In West Virginia, more than 2,000 coal miners died of black lung between 1995 and 2004, second only to Pennsylvania, with 4,234 black lung deaths during the same period, according to government data. Nationwide, more than 10,000 miners died from black lung during those years.
Over the years, numerous reports and studies have recommended steps the coal industry could take to better protect miners. Two years ago, MSHA chief Joe Main proposed new rules based on such recommendations. Scientists and worker health advocates widely praised the MSHA proposal.
But in Congress, some Republican lawmakers quickly began to line up to oppose the MSHA plan.
In February 2011, Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., blamed black lung disease on coal miners themselves.
"I see a lot of patients with workplace related respiratory problems, some of which, to put it bluntly, are their own issue, because they refuse to wear safety equipment regardless of whether there are regulations in place to do so or not," said Bucshon, whose father and grandfathers were coal miners.
And in April 2011, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., complained that the MSHA plan would be too costly for the industry.
"Every regulation doesn't save lives," Paul said. "There is a point or a balancing act between when a regulation becomes burdensome and our energy production is stifled. We have to assess the cost."
MSHA had, in fact, assessed the costs, estimating compliance costs for coal operators at between $72.4 million and $93.2 million for 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 figure is calculated.
Paul also argued the government has done "a pretty good job" of fighting black lung. He said cases of the disease had declined over time, but ignored the most recent evidence of a resurgence of black lung.
By the fall of 2011, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., was pushing an amendment to the Labor Department's budget bill to block the MSHA proposal. Rehberg acted as the National Mining Association pressed questions about data MSHA used to design its proposal, and while coal companies including Murray Energy and Arch Coal helped fund his campaign to try to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
By mid-December, the measure had made it into the final budget bill, a move that gave the Obama administration little choice but to go along with it.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., praised the amendment, saying it prevented MSHA "from shutting down mines around the country and handing pink slips to hard-working miners in southern and eastern Kentucky."
The United Mine Workers blasted the amendment.
"Including this language in the bill will have the effect of sentencing more miners to die a painful and premature death, choking on their last breath," said union spokesman Phil Smith.
Later, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said in January 2012 that the budget amendment would not restrict her agency from finalizing the black lung rule — only from implementing or enforcing it. But so far, MSHA has not sent a final rule to the White House for its approval.