Press Releases

Aug 01 2013

ROCKEFELLER INTRODUCES BLACK LUNG LEGISLATION

Senator?s Call for More Protections Latest in Series of Efforts on Behalf of West Virginia Coal Miners

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Building on his call earlier this year to strengthen mine safety standards and introducing legislation to protect healthcare and pension benefits for Patriot Coal retirees, Senator Jay Rockefeller today took another step to safeguard coal miners from Black Lung Disease.

Rockefeller introduced The Black Lung Health Improvements Act of 2013, as part of his longstanding commitment to protect miners from the debilitating and deadly disease.

“It’s been my mission for nearly 50 years to keep our miners and their families safe, secure and healthy. At the very heart of that work is making absolutely sure that no miner is forced to suffer from Black Lung disease – and if they’re suffering, making sure that they get the benefits and care they need to help manage this debilitating condition,” Rockefeller said. 

“There was a time when we all thought Black Lung was going to become eradicated. That it was a relic of a more dangerous time for our coal miners. 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.”

The Black Lung Health Improvements Act of 2013 will help prevent Black Lung disease by proposing new respirable coal dust standards for those already suffering so their exposure to Black Lung-causing substances is reduced; increasing miners’ access to their health records in the Black Lung claims process; making it easier for miners to access legal representation when operators refuse to provide benefits; creating new grants for research into the disease; making it easier for long-time miners and their families to collect Black Lung benefits; and requiring the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study ways to make the application process for Black Lung Disability claims easier for miners to navigate, among other provisions.

Rockefeller’s efforts on Black Lung are third in a series of bills he has introduced this year on behalf of West Virginia’s coal miners. In March, Rockefeller introduced the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee (CARE) Act, that would protect benefits for thousands of retired miners whose livelihoods are in jeopardy as Patriot Coal tries to shed its pension and healthcare obligations in bankruptcy court. In April, Rockefeller re-introduced an updated version of his comprehensive mine safety legislation, the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act, aimed at fixing the glaring
safety problems revealed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

“This bill is an important next step in our ongoing fight for miners’ health and safety. But it is not, and should not be the end of Congressional action on Black Lung,” Rockefeller added. “These men and women have one of the hardest and most challenging jobs on the planet. It’s a job that requires strength, dedication and courage – and it’s a job that should be met with access to the best health support we can provide.”

(For a full text of the bill, click here.) 

Background:

Rockefeller has long fought to reduce the incidents of black lung among coal
miners, including by:

  • Working to limit miners’ exposure to black lung disease.  In addition to the Black Lung-specific bill he’s introducing today, earlier this year Rockefeller reintroduced his landmark comprehensive mine safety bill that included a      new provision requiring MSHA to issue a rule within six months to reduce      miners’ exposure to respirable dust that causes Black Lung disease. The bill also directs MSHA to update those regulations every five years if instances of black lung disease do not decrease.  Autopsies revealed that 71 percent of the victims of the Upper Big Branch disaster had black lung disease, including a 25 year old miner. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also found that the prevalence of black lung disease has increased since 2000, following a steady decline over the previous 30 years.  NIOSH also identified severe cases of the disease in miners at younger ages.
  • Fighting back against those opposed to reducing cases of black lung disease. In July, Rockefeller criticized Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee for inserting language into an appropriations bill that would prohibit MSHA from implementing new rules to reduce the rate of black lung disease.
  • Continuing to protect benefits for miners who have contracted black lung. In May 2013, after learning that some people were not receiving their black lung benefits on time, Rockefeller reached out to the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Labor to help resolve the issue.  He also supported a provision in the health care reform law that allows retired miners and their families to receive black lung benefits without re-filing claims or having to reprove their spouse died as a result of black lung disease.  In an effort to speed up compensation to those affected by black lung, Rockefeller introduced a bill that would have streamlined the benefits process for miners and their families under the Black Lung Trust Fund. 
  • Searching for new ways black lung can be addressed.  In 2009, Rockefeller released a GAO report he requested regarding the persistent barriers that miners and their families face when trying to secure benefits through the federal Black Lung Benefits Program.  Rockefeller called on the U.S. Department of Labor to quickly consider and act on the report.