CHARLESTON, W.Va. --
As the Obama administration continues to delay issuing new rules aimed at ending black lung, Sen. Jay Rockefeller is pushing legislation that would force the U.S. Department of Labor to finalize a proposal to toughen limits on exposure to coal dust that causes the disease.
The West Virginia Democrat said the Black Lung Health Improvement Act of 2013 is part of his "longstanding commitment to protect miners from the debilitating and deadly disease.
"There was a time when we all thought black lung was going to be eradicated -- that it was a relic of a more dangerous time for our coal miners," Rockefeller said Thursday in a prepared statement. "Tragically, that was wrong. After years of decline, black lung cases are rising again in a new generation of miners. We can't let this happen."
Under Rockefeller's bill, the labor department's Mine Safety and Health Administration would have six months to finalize tighter dust limits that MSHA proposed in October 2010.
The legislation does not require a specific new limit but says the final rule must lower the legal exposure levels "in order to provide the maximum feasible protection" for miners.
Last month, MSHA pushed back its timeline for finalizing its rule from a missed target date of June 2013 to September 2013. However, MSHA has yet to forward its final draft to the White House Office of Management and Budget, where an economic review could take many more months.
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 experts have been warning since the 1990s that the dust limits need to be tightened. More 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.
Last year, a joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, with additional reporting by The Charleston Gazette, documented widespread industry cheating on coal-dust controls and repeated inaction by regulators to try to end the disease.
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.
Rockefeller's bill, introduced Wednesday night, also would increase miners' access to health records during the black-lung-benefits claims process, create new grants for research into the disease and make it easier for long-time miners and their families to collect benefits.
The legislation also requires the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study ways to make the application process for black-lung claims easier for miners to navigate.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.