BLUEFIELD, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller called black lung "a completely preventable disease" Thursday and vowed to push the Obama administration to approve new limits on the coal dust that causes it.
Scientists, doctors and two women who lost their husbands to black lung disease gathered in Bluefield for a roundtable discussion the West Virginia Democrat organized.
Rockefeller told the participants that he called the White House on Wednesday evening to try to speed up the review and approval process for the dust rule the Mine Safety and Health Administration has proposed.
"No one has to get black lung disease. It is not inevitable," he said. "And it is well past time we relegate this terrible disease to the archives of history."
Media outlets say Rockefeller also dismissed complaints from congressional Republicans that complying with the rule would raise costs.
"If you can't be in business safely," he said, "you shouldn't be in business at all."
Panelists at the event included epidemiologist Scott Laney of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Morgantown, public health analyst Anita Wolfe of the Coal Workers' Health Surveillance Program and miner Joe Massie, president of the National Black Lung Association.
Federal statistics show more than 9,600 coal miners died of black lung nationwide between 1996 and 2005. Pennsylvania had the highest number of deaths in that period, and West Virginia had the second highest.
Last month, Rockefeller introduced the Black Lung Health Improvements Act of 2013, which would increase miners' access to health records to facilitate the claims process, and make it easier for them to get legal representation when coal companies refuse benefits.
The bill also proposes new coal dust standards for those already suffering so their exposure to disease-causing substances is reduced. And it would make it easier for veteran miners and their dependents to collect black lung benefits.
The bill would also create new research grants and require the Government Accountability Office to study ways to make the application process for disability claims easier to navigate.