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Federal crackdown on silica dust begins as mining experts highlight impact to Kentucky workers

Federal officials, lawmakers, and researchers gathered at Rep. Morgan McGarvey's office in Louisville for a discussion on the importance of the new silica dust rule.
Justin Hicks
Federal officials, lawmakers, and researchers gathered at Rep. Morgan McGarvey's office in Louisville for a discussion on the importance of the new silica dust rule on Monday, June 17, 2024.

Starting Monday, mining companies across the country are expected to halve the amount of toxic rock dust their workers can be exposed to. It comes amid an epidemic of the deadly black lung disease among coal miners in central Appalachia.

After a years-long rule-making process at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), coal mines will have to keep workers safe from toxic silica dust by lowering the legal exposure limit from 100 micrograms to 50 micrograms over an 8-hour work shift.

Experts have long-known that silica dust is causing a surge in the incurable black lung disease among central Appalachian coal miners. It’s caused as miners inhale bits of the rock that’s being pulverized to get to harder-to-reach coal seams.

“You want to know what it’s like to have black lung?” John Robinson, a former miner battling the disease asked at a roundtable discussion in Louisville on Monday. “Grab your pillow off your bed, go outside, and get your push mower going in your yard.”

Other industries who extract things like metal, sand and gravel will also need to comply with the silica standards. For the first time ever, they’ll also be required to X-ray workers’ lungs. Those X-rays will be stored in a database managed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Those industries have said they don’t see the same epidemic coal has with black lung, but regulators hypothesize that’s because they don’t look.

“My guess is, that when we go looking for a problem, when we go looking at these miners and their chest films, we’re probably going to see silica in those lungs,” NIOSH researcher Scott Laney said.

U.S. Representative Morgan McGarvey hosted Monday’s roundtable in Louisville with federal experts discussing the impact of the rule. There are no active coal mines in his district, but he is the only Democrat in Kentucky’s congressional delegation.

Officials have lauded the Biden administration for the measure, which was promised but undelivered in multiple previous administrations.

“I’ve always considered myself, yes, representing my district, but also being a representative of our state,” McGarvey said. “When you talk about the safety of our workers, to me, that’s never been a political issue.”

McGarvey’s office said the lawmaker wanted to learn from federal experts about what is needed “to ensure effective implementation and enforcement of this rule.”

One thing that might make it difficult to implement and enforce? A flat budget at the federal mine agency. Congress recently denied a $50 million budget increase for more mine inspections and more silica dust sampling.

“We just need to help get MSHA more money to help enforce this,” National Black Lung Association Vice President Vonda Robinson said. “They need more guys to go out and help, to be able to enforce this.”

MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson speaks at a press conference on Monday in Louisville.
Justin Hicks
MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson speaks at a press conference on Monday in Louisville.

“MSHA has had flat budgets for, I don’t know how many years now,” MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson said at a panel earlier in June. “You’re talking about people because in almost every federal agency, the cost driver is personnel. We will do the best we can with what we're given to work with, but it will remain a priority.”

Appalachian advocacy groups have criticized the measure for largely relying on companies to accurately self-report high silica dust samples. They say it gives companies “every incentive to continue cheating and hiding dangers” and compared it to letting a “fox guard the hen house.”

Williamson has repeatedly promised that any companies caught cheating on the silica testing and reporting requirements will be dealt with severely.

Meanwhile, the silica rule is facing two separate legal challenges from mining industry associations. They’re asking federal judges to analyze the rule for its legality.

“Worker safety and health is a core value of our association, but unfortunately, this rule has missed the mark,” National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association CEO & President Michael Johnson said in a written statement. “MSHA’s crystalline silica rule includes provisions that were not included in the proposed rule, for which we were not provided the opportunity to comment, as required by law.”

Although companies are expected to begin lower silica dust levels now, enforcement will begin in April 2025 for coal companies and 2026 for non-coal.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.