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The Bush administration went to court Tuesday to defend Clinton-era regulations aimed at making it easier for coal miners and their survivors to get black lung benefits. The National Mining Association is suing to have the rules overturned. Attorney Mark Solomons argued that the regulations, which took effect a day before President Clinton left office, would be so expensive they would force some coal mine operators into bankruptcy. Mine operators and their insurance companies fund the black lung benefits program, though the Labor Department runs it. Solomons argued the new rules were arbitrary and that the Labor Department overstepped its authority in issuing them. “They reinvented a whole federal program top to bottom without any congressional input at all,” he said. The new rules are expected to streamline the benefits application process in part by limiting medical evidence. Solomons called the limits unfair. Justice Department attorney Peter Robbins said the Labor Department has the authority to limit evidence. He also said miners and mine operators could seek special permission to submit extra evidence in some cases. Solomons also argued that the rules were impermissibly retroactive. But U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan asked Solomons, “If the mines are so safe, what are the mine operators fearful of?” Sullivan said he would issue a written ruling soon. In February he blocked the processing of some new claims pending the outcome of the lawsuit. The government estimates 1,500 claims are now on hold as a result of that stay. The Bush administration indicated in its brief that it would not have drafted the same regulations as the Clinton administration, but Justice Department attorney Gail Walker said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao stood by the rules. United Mine Workers attorney Tom Johnson told Sullivan an estimated 2,100 Americans die of black lung disease each year. 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. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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