Even in a matter of life or death, Republicans continue to refuse to rise above partisanship to work with the Obama administration. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have included language in the proposed 2013 budget to block the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) from using any funds to move forward with a plan that improves protection for miners from deadly black lung disease by implementing stricter regulations. Caused by exposure to excessive coal dust, the disease is untreatable and potentially crippling.
Congress has passed legislation aimed at eliminating black lung in the past; in 1969, a law requiring mine operators to take steps to limit exposure was implemented. While that effort accomplished its goal back then, it seems to be failing now, as scientists have found that black lung is on the rise once again:
Incidence of black lung has doubled in the last decade, and the disease is no longer confined to underground coal miners: Increasingly, it has spread to surface miners as well. But why has black lung once again become such an urgent issue? According to an investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, “the system that is supposed to control miners’ exposure to coal dust and silica is plagued by loopholes in the law, weak enforcement, and cheating by some mining companies.” In 1998, a report by The Courier-Journal “found widespread fraud among coal operators who submitted false air samples to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.”
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts asserted that the Republicans’ budget measure “amounts to nothing more than a potential death sentence for thousands of American miners.”
How do the Republicans defend their stalling? “It is the chairman’s position and the position of the subcommittee that that particular regulation is harmful and costly to the industry and to the economy in general,” says Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee.
Even more frightening, the Charleston Gazette reported that “Industry supporters in Congress have claimed that black lung rates have not increased and have blamed miners for not protecting themselves from excess dust.”
Yet interestingly enough, the regions that are most affected by black lung are generally very conservative and support the Republican Party. NPR found that “cases of the worst stage of the disease have quadrupled since the 1980s in a triangular region of Appalachia stretching from eastern Kentucky through southern West Virginia and into southwestern Virginia.” To indicate just how conservative this area is, in West Virginia, a federal prisoner received more than 40 percent of the vote in this year’s Democratic presidential primary as a rebuke to President Obama.
As Tony Oppegard — a former Kentucky and federal mine safety regulator points out — “Appalachian coal miners whose pickup trucks sport ‘Friends of Coal’ stickers might ought to re-assess who their true friends are.” He adds, “It’s certainly not Republicans, who stand silent in the midst of a health crisis. Our nation needs fewer ‘Friends of Coal’ and more ‘Friends of Coal Miners’.”