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Miner advocates hail new rule lowering toxic silica dust exposure to level recommended 50 years ago

By Mike Tony, Charleston Gazette-Mail

SOUTH UNION TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Gary Hairston has been asked a question with an all too common answer after going upstairs to pick up the phone at his Beckley home.

“Why are you breathing so hard?” Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association, recalled Tuesday, 22 years after black lung disease forced him to quit mining coal at age 48.

But speaking at the United Mine Workers of America’s District 2 office just outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania Tuesday, Hairston says it was the federal government that has finally answered a desperate call.

“Y’all know what we’re going through,” Hairston said. “Y’all helping us. It took years to get here. But I tell you, we’re here, and we thank you for it.”

Hairston was one of roughly 50 stakeholders on hand at the UMWA office for the U.S. Department of Labor’s announcement of a final rule cutting in half the federally allowed limit of exposure to toxic silica dust.

The new rule from the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration comes 50 years after the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal agency that makes recommendations for preventing work-related illnesses, recommended the newly announced exposure limit.

“It means for the first time, the federal government is setting a truly adequate protection against silica,” Sam Petsonk, a Fayette County-based labor and employment law attorney who made the trip to southwestern Pennsylvania, said in an interview just before the announcement event.

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