West Virginia Miners Say Bush Reneged on Promise

By Cheryl K. Chumley | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - West Virginia had not voted for a Republican non-incumbent presidential candidate in 80 years, until the state helped George W. Bush squeak out a victory over Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 race. Less than four months after the election, however, Bush is under attack in parts of the state that believe he reneged on a promise to help coal miners with black lung disease.

Former President Bill Clinton approved a measure in the last few weeks of his term limiting the amount of medical evidence coal industries could present against black lung claimants during court testimony. The limitations were geared at preventing the coal companies from extending litigation to the point where alleged victims could no longer afford - financially or emotionally - to pursue their claims.

The National Mining Association challenged those Clinton mandates in court, and now Bush is accused by labor organizations, particularly in West Virginia, of "supporting [that NMA] lawsuit that led to a judge's decision to grant a preliminary injunction" in the case. The injunction blocked the medical evidence limits from taking effect, according to the United Mine Workers of America.

"Bush, who had campaigned saying he was for black lung benefits ... is now all of a sudden saying we have to put a stop to [these regulations]," said Doug Gibson, a spokesperson for the UMW. "These new rules would have made it so [the courts] could look at only two doctors' opinions, so that the coal companies could not dispute claims endlessly."

With Bush's latest actions, however, "a lot of people's benefits are going to be delayed," Gibson said.

Public relations officials with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America had no opinion on the matter.

NMA agents, however, said the suit against Clinton's last-minute policy seeks only to reverse what they view as an unfair mandate - and insisted that such action would actually enhance the rights of true sufferers of black lung disease.

"Our position [on Clinton's law] is that it's for the worse," said Karen Batra, with the NMA's media relations department. "In the long run, it means that legitimate black lung victims' benefits are delayed" because of the bureaucratic intervention.

"I think what the problem is, is that people on both sides don't really understand the implications of these new regulations," she added.

Bush beat Gore in West Virginia, 52-46 percent. The state's five electoral votes were crucial in helping him gain the eventual 271-267 Electoral College victory over Gore. And any negative political repercussions for Bush because of the black lung controversy are negligible, according to one analyst.

Though Bush carried West Virginia during the election, in part because of his stated commitments to uphold both the rights of mining victims to claim benefits and the wishes of the coal industry to expand development, even Gibson admitted union workers did little to support the Republican presidential ticket.

"He did not take the coal counties," Gibson said.

Bush, now faced with an opportunity to loosen the environmental restrictions imposed on the coal industries in West Virginia by the Clinton administration, could actually gain the support of many in the state, regardless of the black lung benefits issue, said Mark Johnson, a senior partner with Patriot Campaign Consulting.

By increasing job opportunities within the coal regions, and tackling the nation's energy problems at the same time, Bush will curry favor with West Virginian workers and businesses alike, he said.

"I think when families are able to more easily put food on their tables," Johnson said, "these people will remember that Bush was the one that helped them do that."

Besides, Johnson continued, Bush's support of the NMA suit is not as much of an "outrage" as the mining unions say.

"From my perspective, it sounds to me Bush is just making that move because Clinton was probably having his strings pulled by the trial lawyers," he said. "Bush is just counteracting what the Clinton administration did."