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New federal rule aims to limit coal miners’ exposure to silica dust, long linked to black lung disease


New federal rule aims to limit coal miners’ exposure to silica dust, long linked to black lung disease

Apr 16, 2024 | 6:35 pm ET
By Ian Karbal
New federal rule aims to limit coal miners’ exposure to silica dust, long linked to black lung disease
Exposure to mixed coal mine dust that contains silica — a carcinogen — can lead to the development of pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease. (Getty Images)

Acting Secretary of the Department of Labor Julie Su traveled to Uniontown Tuesday to announce the publication of her department’s final rule on silica dust exposure in mines. The rule is intended to significantly limit miners’ exposure to the dangerous substance.

Silica dust exposure has long been linked with black lung cases in miners, and for decades leading health experts have advocated for limiting exposure. The announcement of the new final rule from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Tuesday was celebrated by members of the United Mine Workers of America union and other advocates who joined Su in Uniontown.

The rule will slash the allowable amount of airborne silica dust in mines to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, or half of the current limit. It will require mine operators to monitor for silica dust levels and take immediate action to ensure miner safety when levels exceed the established limit. Any measurement of silica dust exceeding the new limit would have to be reported to the MSHA immediately.

Su also said that MSHA has hired 270 inspectors under the Biden administration to help ensure safe working conditions in mines.

Today, we’re making it clear that no job should be a death sentence,” Su said. “We estimate that this final rule will save more than a thousand lives and prevent severe illness for thousands more. This means more moms and dads, sons and daughters, coming home safe and healthy at the end of every day right here in Uniontown.”

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts also spoke in Uniontown, noting that the union has been advocating for such a rule for years. 

“This is a critical step to keeping miners safe and healthy not just day-to-day, but for their full lifetime,” Roberts said. “Now, our focus shifts to holding mining companies accountable.

Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman, along with Democratic Senators from Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, issued a joint statement applauding the rule. 

This rule will play an essential role in safeguarding miners from cancers, silicosis and black lung disease, especially in Appalachia,” the Senators said jointly. “We will continue working together in the Senate to advance commonsense rules like this one to protect the health and welfare of these heroes.”

When a draft version of the rule was released by the Department of Labor in June, advocates had concerns. The Appalachian Citizens Law Center, a non-profit that advocates for miners and their families in the region, criticized the draft rule for a lack of proposed penalties for mine operators found in violation of the new silica dust limit. They also raised concerns that the rule largely left the monitoring of silica dust levels to the mine operators themselves.

The group said in a statement Tuesday that it is  still reviewing the nearly-700 page final rule.

“We are reviewing the rule closely to ensure that MSHA has recognized the input from the many health professionals, attorneys, and miners who provided comment on this rule,” Appalachian Citizen Law Center policy director Rebecca Shelton said in the statement. “There are too many lives at stake to get this wrong, and we’ll do whatever we can to ensure that this rule provides the protection that miners deserve.”

The rule itself lays out little in the way of specific penalties for mine operators found in violation of the rule.

Fetterman told the Capital-Star, “this rule is a good first step and I’m confident that the Biden Administration will follow up with fair and firm enforcement that protects miners and holds companies to account.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Labor told the Capital-Star that mine companies that fail to comply with the new rule would face “consequences.” Those include citations, possible penalties, or other corrective orders. 

A mine operator that fails to act, Malone added, could ultimately face an order to withdraw miners from affected areas of a mine. The rule allows coal mines one year to come under compliance and other metal and non-metal mines two years.