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A federal judge has upheld Clinton-era regulations that aim to make it easier for coal miners to get black-lung benefits. The National Mining Association sued the Labor Department to have the rules overturned. Mine operators and their insurance companies pay for the black-lung benefits program, although the Labor Department runs it. Asked if the association would appeal Thursday’s ruling of U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, association lawyer Mark Solomons said: “You could bet your pension on it.” The new rules, which took effect a day before President Clinton left office, are designed to simplify and expedite the claims process. Solomons contends portions of the regulations are arbitrary, and the agency overstepped itself in issuing them. Sullivan disagreed. “The DOL was acting entirely within its authority,” the judge said in his written ruling. The United Mine Workers of America praised the ruling. “It’s an excellent, thoughtful, well-reasoned decision upholding the black-lung rules in their entirety,” said an elated Judith Rivlin, the union’s lawyer. 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 union estimates more than 1,400 miners die from the disease each year. The new rules 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. The new rules also give the opinion of the miner’s treating physician more weight than in the past. “They’re making it a lot easier for them to get benefits,” Solomons said, adding that some operators “are probably not going to be able to afford the added costs.” The union estimates roughly 7 percent of black-lung claims currently are approved, and that the figure will increase to about 12 percent under the new regulations. Solomons thinks that’s too conservative, predicting about 20 percent of future claims would be approved under the new rules. Sullivan blocked the processing of some new claims this year pending the outcome of the lawsuit. Thursday’s ruling allows those claims to move forward. UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in a statement that Labor Secretary Elaine Chao’s decision to defend the Clinton-era rules “certainly contributed to our overall success.” In a statement Thursday, Chao said she was “pleased the court upheld the regulations, whether they originated in this administration or previous administrations.” Labor Department lawyers said in February that Chao needed time to consider whether to defend the regulations, but Chao said in May she would side with miners in court. Similarly, Chao said last month she would side with miners in a separate dispute with the coal industry. In that case, the Labor Department is appealing a ruling that would require the government to change the way it tests for dust in underground coal mines. The Bush administration has sided with the coal industry over environmentalists in several instances, including backing off a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide pollution and endorsing subsidies for companies that invest in clean-coal technology. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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