Biden cracks down on silica dust, a mining health scourge

By Hannah Northey | 04/16/2024 08:45 AM EDT

The long-awaited rule will limit miners’ exposure to the dangerous dust, which can lead to incurable and debilitating lung disease.

The retired coal miner in Virginia holds his mining helmet.

The retired coal miner in Virginia holds his mining helmet. Dylan Lovan/AP

The Biden administration unveiled a final mining rule Tuesday that imposes federal limits on silica dust, a carcinogen that threatens miners digging up everything from coal to metals like copper and zinc.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s regulations limit the amount of silica dust that workers can inhale during a shift, according to a fact sheet the agency released. Current restrictions on silica exposure are tied to the agency’s coal dust limits.

Silica dust comprises tiny crystals that can reach the deepest parts of the lungs. The dust is churned up by equipment cutting and grinding rock to get to ore or coal seams. Miners exposed to silica over a long time face debilitating and incurable diseases such as lung cancer and silicosis as well as respiratory and kidney diseases. Exposure to silica mixed with coal mine dust can lead to black lung disease.


“It is unconscionable that our nation’s miners have worked without adequate protection from silica dust despite it being a known health hazard for decades,” acting Labor Secretary Julie Su said in a press release.

In addition to setting exposure limits, the final rule requires mine operators to use engineering tools to prevent overexposure and monitor exposures with dust sampling and environmental evaluations.

Coal mine operators will have a year to comply after the rule is published, while operators of metal and nonmetal mines will have two years.