lungsThe Center for Public Integrity

Research supports an Obama administration plan to reduce coal miners’ exposure to the dust that causes black lung, a much-anticipated Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this January found.

Last December, House Republicans inserted language into an appropriations bill requiring the study. No money could be used to implement a proposed coal mine dust rule until the GAO evaluated the research underpinning it, the rider said.

The GAO report lends support to one piece of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) efforts to address a resurgence of black lung, particularly in parts of Appalachia. A Center for Public Integrity-NPR investigation in July found that the disease has returned amid widespread cheating on required dust sampling by some mining companies and enforcement lapses by MSHA.

MSHA wants dust exposure cut in half

In October 2010, the agency proposed cutting in half the amount of dust to which miners could be exposed, but the proposal has drawn opposition from some in the mining industry and Congress. Some miners’ advocates worry the rule could die, as previous reform attempts have, if it isn’t finalized before the coming election.

“Black lung is a growing health crisis,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said in a statement. “But special interests and their congressional allies have repeatedly tried to stop the mine safety agency from updating its rules to address this disease. The GAO’s report shows that the latest line of attack was groundless and, as a result, unsuccessful. Opponents of the proposed rule attacked the science, but the study they called for shows the science to be sound: the proposed rule would reduce coal miners’ risk of developing black lung.”

Mining industry: Rule isn't needed

National Mining Association (NMA) spokeswoman Carol Raulston said the GAO report hasn’t changed the organization’s position that the proposed rule is unnecessary. “The data do not seem to indicate that you’re going to get the kind of results you’d hope for with this approach,” she said.

The increase in disease, the association contends, is confined to pockets of central Appalachia and is the result of miners breathing more dust from ground-up rock, not coal. What’s needed, Raulston said, is increased enforcement of standards meant to curb exposure to silica, the mineral in much of the rock surrounding coal seams that can cause a faster-progressing form of disease.

The association has previously criticized some of the coal mine dust studies that the GAO determined were sound. In the recently released report, the GAO concluded researchers “took reasonable steps to mitigate the limitations and biases in the data” and “used appropriate analytical methods.”

Since last December, House Republicans have continued to attack the rule. A paragraph in this year’s appropriations bill, written by Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, would bar MSHA from using any money to continue work on the rule. Democrats on the committee objected, citing the Center-NPR investigation.

Rehberg did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Rep. Hal Rogers, R.-Ky., chairman of the House appropriations committee and a longtime champion of the coal industry, said in a statement, "Our office understands that the House Appropriations Committee is reviewing the report, but it doesn’t appear that GAO answered the very specific questions posed by Congress.”