I wonder sometimes if House Republicans have the same reading list as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. They obviously didn't read the series of articles about black lung disease in U.S. coal miners prepared by Chris Hamby and Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity, and Ken Ward Jr., of the Charleston (WV) Gazette. Coal mine workers in their 30's, 40's and 50's are developing the fast-progressing form of the lung disease. The stories lay out in detail some of the reasons for the epidemic, as well as the ineffective regulatory and enforcement system that fails to protect our nation's mine workers, and the long-known solutions to the problem.
I guess if these Members of Congress don't read these news stories, they also didn't listen to the collection of reports by Howard Berkes of National Public Radio. His reporting featured the labored--very labored---breathing of coal miner Mark McCowen, 47. It was painful to hear Mr. McCowen gasping for air to simply answer the reporter's questions. It makes me sad and then mad that lawmakers and policymakers don't recognize the injustice and do something to solve it. Black lung disease and silicosis are preventable. No ifs, ands, or buts.
It's one thing to be ignorant about a problem, but it's another to intentionally obstruct efforts to address it. That's what's Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are doing. The FY 2013 appropriations bill, which includes funding for the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), was reported from committee on July 15. It contains this provision:
"SEC. 118. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to continue the development of or to promulgate, administer, enforce, or otherwise implement the Lowering Miners' Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors regulation being developed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the Department of Labor."
That's legislative mumbo-jumbo that says MSHA is banned from finalizing a regulation to protect coal miners from developing black lung disease.
The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. alerted me to a statement by the Appropriations Committee's spokesperson who defend the provision:
It is the chairman’s position [Congressman Hal Rogers of Kentucky] and the position of the subcommittee that that particular regulation is harmful and costly to the industry and to the economy in general.
So their solution is to put the brakes on the whole thing? For a year?? As Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia told Ken Ward:
The provision ...that would halt progress on addressing black lung is reckless; it provides the disease another yearlong grace period to continue attacking miners and taking their lives in growing numbers.
I'd go further. Lawmakers who support this provision are giving coal mine operators a free pass to poison the lungs of their workforce. That's disgraceful.
NPR's Howard Berkes also reports on this committee language, and provides a statement from the National Mining Association which supports the ban provision. The statement reads like something from a spoiled four-year old, "we told MSHA what we wanted in a rule and if we can't get it, we don't want any rule at all."
But some lawmakers don't want coal miners or their families to feel like they aren't loved. As long as the miners keep it in the coal, don't complain about safety, or bother the rest of us when the dust chokes out their lungs, we can pretend that everything is A-OK in coal country U.S.A. To show their appreciation, lawmakers have written to the U.S. Postal Service's Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee asking for a postage stamp commemorating the American Coal Miner. Congressman Lou Barletta (R-PA) is circulating a letter to his colleagues asking for their support for the postage stamp idea. The letter begins:
"Over the last 150 years, millions of workers have toiled in the nation's coal mines. The American Coal Miner came from around the world, seeking a better life in our coal fields. ...the American Coal Miner risked life and limb to feed families ...Since 1900, almost 108,000 coal miners perished in mining accidents. Countless more contracted a wide range of debilitating diseases, including black lung disease, as a direct result of their toil.... sadly, the American Coal Miner continues to perish on the job, continues to contract debilitating diseases, and continues to be seriously injured even today. ... Appearing on a United States Postal Service stamp is a high honor, a place of distinction for historic and cultural icons. We ask that the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee recommend to the Postmaster General that a stamp commemorating the American Coal Miner be issued."
So there you have it coal miners. Members of Congress think you deserve a place of high honor and distinction, and even acknowledge that many of you will be stricken with black lung disease. Their answer: you deserve a postage stamp. Not better laws to protect your health, or the health of your sons who follow in your footsteps, but a 45-cent postage stamp.
It's not lost on me that Congressman Barletta is on the House Education and the Workforce Committee which voted down a measure last month to merely consider improvements in our nation's mine safety laws. Joining in that opposition were other Members of Congress who also think a postage stamp is all U.S. coal miners deserve: Mike Kelly (R-PA), Phil Roe (R-TN), and Glenn Thompson (R-PA).