Breathless and Burdened

Published — April 11, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

GAO report again finds black lung proposal supported by science

A mine employee stands in the entry of the Signal Peak Energy's Bull Mountain mine in Roundup, Mont., November 2010. Janie Osborne/AP


A longstanding federal proposal to lower coal miners’ exposure to the dust that can cause black lung disease is supported by substantial scientific evidence.

That’s the conclusion government auditors reached in 2012, answering demands for a study by members of Congress concerned about the rule. And it’s the conclusion the auditors reached again — after another congressional request for a study — in a report released this week.

The rule, proposed by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2010, remains under review at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget — with both the industry and miners’ advocates watching closely.

As industry leaders warn of dire economic consequences should the new standard take effect, miners’ advocates observe the delay with exasperation.

“It’s taking a really long time, and no one’s given us any reason for that,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.

At the heart of the rule are provisions cutting in half the amount of dust that is allowed in a mine’s air and requiring the use of monitors that provide continuous information about dust levels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a government research agency known as NIOSH, recommended the lower dust level in 1995, but attempts to implement this change have faltered.

The National Mining Association, a trade group, and many of the nation’s biggest coal companies have attacked the scientific basis of the proposed rule and argued that meeting the strict new limit isn’t feasible technologically or economically. These groups also have taken their case to the White House’s budget office, meeting with government officials last fall on two occasions. The union also met with these officials last November.

The mining association did not respond to a request for comment about the study released this week.

Members of Congress also have raised concerns about the rule, echoing industry complaints. In December 2011, House Republicans inserted language into an appropriations bill blocking implementation of the rule until the Government Accountability Office conducted an evaluation of the research underpinning the proposal. The resulting report, released in August 2012, found the rule scientifically well-grounded.

Nine months later, U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers of Kentucky and Jack Kingston of Georgia, both Republicans, asked the GAO to conduct the study that led to this week’s report. Rogers, who is up for re-election this year, counts the National Mining Association and other energy companies or trade groups among the donors to his campaign. Spokespeople for Rogers and Kingston did not respond to requests for comment.

Repeatedly referencing its 2012 report, the GAO noted the body of scientific literature supporting the reduction of the dust limit and relayed comments from a panel of experts about the ways dust levels could be reduced using better ventilation and water sprays, among other methods.

In its most recent regulatory agenda, released last November, MSHA said it anticipated the rule would be finalized last December. Agency spokesperson Amy Louviere, in a statement, didn’t elaborate on the status of the rule, but noted, “Miners continue to get black lung disease.”

A 2012 Center for Public Integrity-NPR investigation detailed how, after years of steady decline in disease rates following landmark 1969 legislation, the prevalence of black lung has been increasing since the late 1990s. Of particular concern to government researchers: A trend toward younger miners contracting a more severe, fast-progressing form of the illness.

In 2013, a yearlong Center investigation, conducted in part with ABC News, revealed how prominent lawyers and doctors, working at the behest of the coal industry, had helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung. Since the report, members of Congress and the Labor Department have pushed for reforms to better protect workers.

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