CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators are asking the White House to give final approval to new rules aimed at ending deadly black lung disease among the nation's coal miners.On Wednesday, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration submitted a final draft of its rules for review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.Last month, MSHA said in its latest regulatory agenda that it hoped to issue its final rule by September. But OMB reviews of other major mine safety rules have taken many months, and MSHA can't act without the White House's approval.Still, advocates of tougher rules to reduce miners' exposure to coal dust that causes black lung were pleased to finally see the MSHA rule starting to move."We're pleased they've taken that step," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers. "We've been urging them to do this for some time. Now we just have to see what the rule looks like."MSHA proposed the rule nearly three years ago. It was held up in part by Republicans in Congress who insisted on a U.S. Government Accountability Office audit, but also delayed repeatedly by MSHA and the Labor Department.Two weeks ago, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller wrote directly to President Obama to urge that the administration get the rule moving.
"While rules on coal dust have not yet been finalized, this is a very important step in protecting our miners from the destructive effects of black lung," Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Thursday. "As I wrote to the President, we cannot afford to delay these new rules. Action must be taken now before we lose more West Virginia coal miners to black lung."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.The National Mining Association did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.Industry officials have argued that recent increases in black lung rates are a regional problem and don't require a new nationwide rule. But the GAO report supported the conclusions from NIOSH and MSHA about data on the disease.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org