The Bush administration has decided to defend rules from the Clinton era making it easier for coal miners suffering from black-lung disease to get benefits.
The coal mining industry, which backed President Bush during last year's campaign, has filed a lawsuit against the rules, which it argues are arbitrary and burdensome. But Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said Tuesday she will back them.
"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," Chao said.
Justice Department lawyers asked a judge in February for a suspension of the rules so Chao could consider them. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan denied the request but agreed to block the processing of some new claims pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
"Our concern is that the litigation is itself delaying the larger goal of trying to improve the black lung program," Chao said.
Black-lung disease impairs breathing and is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. Unlike other lung diseases, it does not show up on X-rays and generally is diagnosed by its symptoms. The United Mine Workers of America estimates 1,500 miners die from the disease each year.
Since the early 1970s, liability for payment of benefits to victims and their dependents has been imposed on coal mine operators and their insurance companies. The program is administered by the Labor Department on behalf of roughly 75,000 miners and family members.
The new rules, which took effect the day before President Clinton left office, limit the amount of medical evidence that can be submitted for black-lung claims. Under the old rules, mine operators were permitted to submit an unlimited number of medical opinions, effectively cutting off would-be beneficiaries by keeping their claims in litigation for years.
"These are very important rules that the miners clearly deserve," said Joe Main, health and safety administrator for the miners' union.
The new rules also give the opinion of the miner's treating physician more weight. "It will clearly make the playing field more fair for the miners," Main said.
The National Mining Association, which brought the lawsuit, says the Labor Department overstepped its bounds in issuing them. The industry also argues the rules will make it too expensive for some mine operators to do business.
"For some small underground operators, particularly in the eastern Appalachia area, it will put them out of business," said Bobby Jackson, a vice president of the association.
During the last election, Bush was the biggest individual recipient of coal-mining industry donations, receiving more than $110,000. Since taking office, he has sided with the industry in several key areas.
Under intense industry lobbying, Bush reversed a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants as a pollutant, a move that would have had serious implications for coal-fired plants. He also has proposed spending $2 billion on "clean coal" technology, which the industry supports as a way to boost coal use but taxpayer groups and environmentalists oppose as unproven and expensive.