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Stone quarries prepare for new silica rule, which goes into effect June 17

Machines load rocks to be crushed at a rock quarry. Belts move rocks along the crusher. Piles of smaller rocks can be seen where rocks have already been crushed. A sign reads "Danger, no foot traffic while belt in motion."
Roxy Todd
Salem Stone quarry in Dublin, Va.

On Monday, June 17, a new federal rule goes into effect that lowers how much silica dust is allowed in mines. The change is expected to save thousands of lives. Stone, sand and gravel quarries may be some of those most impacted.

At the Salem Stone Quarry in Dublin, miners are drilling rocks from the ground and processing them in machines. Surrounding them is a thin cloud of dust.

"You can try as hard as you want to, there’s gonna be some dust somewhere," said Scott Ross, director of engineering at Salem Stone.

"But we’re trying to minimize that as much as we can," Ross said.

They operate 14 quarries in Virginia and North Carolina and employ 200 workers. A lot of the stone they mine ends up in the roads we drive, as asphalt.

When silica dust particles get into workers’ lungs it can create a deadly form of disease, called Black Lung, or silicosis.

Salem Stone’s CEO, M.J. O’Brien Jr., said the new rules require more monitoring, reporting, and it will be costly for their company.

"It’s complicated, but yes we’re in favor of it," O'Brien said. "Because it goes further to protect our people, and we’re going to protect them at all costs."

The new silica rules mean this company, and all sand, coal and stone mines, will have to lower their dust levels by half, and it may drive up costs for these materials.

Changes include engineering controls, including reducing dust through water sprays and ventilation systems that capture dust.

Many of these control measures are already implemented in mines, but now there will be a lot more reporting.

Another change is companies will have to do health monitoring for their workers, and report that data to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. This was already required for coal operators, but it's new for nonmetal mines.

The new rule does allow nonmetal mines, like Salem Stone, some time to be in compliance with some of the new requirements, but O'Brien said his company still has questions about the rule. He said they would like to see more clarity from the Mine Safety and Health Administration on how they plan to implement the new requirements, and how they should report dust levels to inspectors.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.