In a brief filed in federal court this week, the Department of Labor (DOL) defended regulations promulgated by the Clinton administration intended to streamline the processing of claims by miners suffering from black lung disease.
"It is the department''s duty to defend the law, regardless of whether they are this administration''s regulations or the previous administration''s regulations,'' said Chao. "Our concern is that the litigation is itself delaying the larger goal of trying to improve the black lung program."
New rules governing the administration of the black lung program went into effect on Jan. 19.
The National Mining Association (NMA) challenged the regulations in court, calling them arbitrary and burdensome. Meanwhile, the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) intervened in the lawsuit to defend the regulations.
"Secretary Chao''s announcement is certainly welcome news to the thousands of coal miners across America suffering with black lung disease," said Cecil Roberts, UMWA president. "The government''s support gives added weight and credibility to the UMWA''s argument that implementation of the new rules should never have been delayed in the first place. We continue to strongly maintain that the merits of NMA''s lawsuit are suspect at best."
NMA says DOL went too far in issuing the rules. Bob Jackson, NMA vice president of human resources, said the industry filed the suit because it believes the rules are bad public policy.
"We don''t feel that the department has the authority to apply this regulation retroactively," said Jackson.
NMA also maintains that DOL has rejected extensive medical and scientific evidence submitted by medical experts which reveal that incidents of black lung disease have been declining.
The industry group said the regulations would have a "profound and potential devastating" economic effect on mine operators both large and small.
The court issued an injunction to allow the Bush administration to review the regulations and required DOL to file a brief on the regulations by Tuesday.
Black lung is a commonly used term for pneumoconiosis, a lung disease resulting from excessive exposure to respirable coal mine dust. In severe cases, black lung can be disabling and fatal.
DOL''s portion of the Federal Black Lung Program provides nearly $460 million annually in monetary and medical benefits to former coal miner workers who are determined to be totally disabled by the crippling respiratory condition.
Oral arguments are set to be heard by all parties involved in the lawsuit beginning June 8.
by Virginia Sutcliffe