Black lung is a disease that afflicts coal miners. It is both incurable and irreversible in later stages. It is caused by inhalation of excessive amounts of coal mine dust. According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), since 1970 black lung has killed over 70,000 coal miners.
Using surveillance data (largely from the Coal Miner’s X-ray Surveillance Program) and epidemiologic studies, NIOSH found that the current dust exposure regulations for U.S. coal mines were not sufficiently protective. It recommended lower dust limits for coal mines. In 2010, the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MHSA) proposed a new rule lowering the respirable coal dust standard from 2.0 mg/m3 to 1.0 mg/m3 to reduce miners’ risk of contracting the disease.
The proposal was stalled by House Republicans who requested a review of the research showing black lung is back. The Government Accountability Office reviewed the data MSHA relied on to develop its proposal. It released its report in August of 2011, supporting MSHA’s proposal to strengthen coal dust limits to combat a resurgence of black lung disease.
According to an article in the New York Times, in the fall of 2011, Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. (and chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees mine safety) began pushing for an amendment to the 2012 federal budget that would block enforcement of the new regulation. The amendment proposed by Representative Rehberg to withdrawal funding and block enforcement of the rule is commonly referred to as the ‘Rehberg Amendment.’
House Appropriation Chairman, Hal Rogers, R-Ky., praised the amendment, stating that it “prevented MSHA from shutting down mines around the country and handing pink slips to hard-working miners in Southern and Eastern Kentucky.” The United Mine Workers Union expressed outrage over the amendment. Union spokesperson, Phil Smith said the amendment “will have the effect of sentencing more miners to die a painful and premature death.”
Representative Rehberg believes MSHA’s regulatory proposals are excessive. “They put impediments in the way of reasonable development” he said in an interview. That Rehberg’s views on this issue are perfectly aligned with the interests of the coal industry is no surprise. They should be, given that in just the past two years mining industry executives and the political action committees of companies including Murray Energy, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy, have donated nearly $100,000 to Mr. Rehberg’s 2012 senate campaign –making him one of the top recipients of mining money in Congress. Besides financing his bid for a senate seat, the mining industry also handed over another $114,775 to Representative Rehberg while he served as a House Rep. for the state of Montana, bringing the total of his paid support for the mining industry to $214,775.
Though Mr. Rehberg narrowly lost his senate race, fellow republicans in Congress have continued to work on behalf of the coal industry, and are likely picking up some of the funds that used to be directed his way. Currently, all but two of the top twenty recipients of mining money in Congress are republicans. The MSHA budget proposed by House GOP leaders would make Mr. Rehberg proud. It will continue to block MSHA –at least for the 2013 fiscal year- from enforcing the new rule by cutting off funds necessary to its implementation.