WASHINGTON -- As House Republicans and Democrats patted one another on the back over their new spending agreement Friday, advocates for coal miners were dismayed to see that the budget bill expected to pass the Senate this weekend will delay new regulations meant to reduce black lung disease.
The rider attached by the GOP pushes back a rule that would further restrict the amount of respirable coal dust allowed in a mine's atmosphere and thereby reduce the amount of damage to miners' lungs. Mining interests have strongly opposed the new rule, arguing that it will needlessly raise costs for coal companies, and they've found plenty of allies among anti-regulatory Republicans in Congress.
The pending bill requires that the Government Accountability Office conduct an investigation into the methodology behind the Labor Department's new rule. The coal dust rule then can't go into effect until either the GAO's report is released or 240 days have passed. The rider was first pointed out on the Coal Tattoo blog.
Critics say the rider gives coal operators at least another 8 months to have unacceptably high levels of coal dust in their mines.
"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," Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said in an emailed statement.
"That may not be what the lawmakers who slipped this into the legislation intended, but it will be the effect."
Democrats said that they managed to fend off more than a dozen GOP riders that could have undermined workplace safety, but that the coal dust regulation was something on which they had to compromise. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), chairman of the House subcommittee on health and labor, had sought to scuttle the new rule entirely.
"We were able to block the most damaging part of the House proposal that would have prevented [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] from moving forward with issuing a final rule altogether," a spokesperson for Sen. Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa) told HuffPost in a statement. "We would have preferred no bill language on this issue as we believe the science supporting the rulemaking is sound."
According to Harkin's office, the new rule could still be implemented by the end of fiscal year 2012, despite the delay.
With black lung disease on the rise in certain areas of Appalachia, government officials for years have recognized the need to reduce the levels of coal dust in mines. The rule now being considered by the Labor Department would cut in half a miner's allowable exposure to coal-dust particles, potentially changing the way operators have to ventilate mineshafts.
Justin Feldman, worker health and safety advocate at watchdog group Public Citizen, said he worries that the GAO report might open the door to further delay.
"Afterwards, the industry will pressure them to reopen [public] comments and hold hearings on it," he said. "And the number of miners who die of black lung is much higher than the number that die in Massey-type disasters," referring to the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.
According to government data, some 10,000 miners have died from black lung disease in the last decade alone.