There was a time, not too long ago, when we thought we had Black Lung disease on its heels.
The mine safety reforms of the 1960s and 1970s were working. Fewer and fewer cases were being reported. The disease, it seemed, was a relic of another age.
In many ways, our wake-up call came on April 5, 2010, and on those horribly tragic days and months that followed.
As investigators sorted through the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster, a picture of another tragedy began to emerge: most of the 29 miners who lost their lives that day had evidence of Black Lung disease. And some of them had been underground for just a handful of years.
This didn’t happen overnight, nor should it have come as a surprise. Cases of Black Lung disease have been inching up since the late 1990s.
The UBB miners—and the thousands and thousands of others who’ve suffered from this crippling, devastating disease—were on my mind this week when I wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to make the health and well-being of our coal miners a priority.
I am deeply frustrated with the lack of progress made on protecting coal miners from Black Lung. We’ve been waiting since 2010—far too long—for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to issue rules on “respirable” coal dust, along with rules for proximity detectors to safeguard miners from being hurt by heavy equipment. It’s doing a profound disservice to coal miners. Their tireless, backbreaking work has literally electrified and built our state, and our nation, for so long.
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 are suffering, making sure that they get the benefits and care they need to help manage this debilitating condition.
Part of that mission is holding the Administration’s feet to the fire on their lack of progress on the health and safety of our coal miners. That’s why I wrote to the President this week. But Congress also needs to step up to the plate as well. I’m urging all of my colleagues to support The Black Lung Health Improvements Act of 2013, a bill I introduced last week that would codify respirable dust rules; streamline the process for applying for Black Lung benefits; and require a GAO report on any roadblocks miners may face when seeking their Black Lung benefits, among other important provisions.
While my bill alone is not enough to stop the prevalence of Black Lung, it is an important step we can take right now to address this problem and stem the tide. We cannot—and should not—delay any longer in giving our miners the protections they need and deserve.
It is time to relegate Black Lung to the dustbin of history.