Underground coal miners start their shifts getting changed in closely packed changing rooms. They ride rail cars to their worksite, shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes for more than an hour. And once they’re underground, ventilation designed to tamp down coal dust blows air through the mine. All that makes a coal mine  the kind of place where the coronavirus could spread like wildfire. 

Coal mines have been designated essential businesses in most states in order to keep the nation’s energy supply stable. But state and federal agencies are not tracking coronavirus transmissions or regulating sanitation to keep those essential workers safe. 

“I think there’s a concern by workers in this country that this is a government that gives workers second seat when it comes to their health and safety,” said Joe Main, former Assistant Secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. 

Rather than implement rule changes or increase safety inspections, MSHA has reduced some enforcement actions and issued unenforceable recommendations for coal miners and mine operators. The language is similar to that used by MSHA’s sister agency, OSHA, which regulates meat packing plants and other work sites that also present risk of transmission. The difference, though, is that coal miners are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of the high percentage of miners with lungs damaged due to exposure to toxic coal and rock dust. 

MSHA encourages workers to wash hands frequently, disinfect equipment, and maintain six feet of space between workers. Such actions can be difficult or impossible underground.

“Guidelines were a good first start, but it’s not enough in this situation,” Main said. “You have people who are totally vulnerable, and you just put out guidelines and let what happens, happen. You have to search in your toolbag and do everything you can to make sure people are protected.”

Main, who served as MSHA assistant secretary from 2009 to 2017 said there are plenty of tools at MSHA’s disposal. It could do more inspections, make sure miners know they can report unsafe conditions without fear of retribution, issue emergency standards, and make public information on which mines had had confirmed cases of the virus. 

Some Congressional members from the region, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, have also urged MSHA to issue emergency standards. A spokesperson for the Senator told the Ohio Valley ReSource, “We understand that individual coal mine operators and unions have developed their own protocols to prevent miners exposure, but [Sen.] Manchin wants to make sure they’re a uniform set of protocols.” 

MSHA did not respond to questions about why it had not made safety precautions mandatory, but a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, which houses MSHA, said, “MSHA’s primary goal, at all times, is ensuring the safety and health of American miners. The Department is actively working on many fronts to aid the American workforce during the COVID-19 response. MSHA encourages all Americans to follow state and federal guidance on safe practices.” 

Tracking Exposure

The first documented case of COVID-19 in a coal mine came from Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported at least two miners were infected with the disease in a Consol Energy mine that straddles the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border. Realizing contact tracing among hundreds of mine workers and their family members would be unfeasible, mine operators said they would close the facility for two weeks. 

Consol voluntarily reported the cases to MSHA, the Post-Gazette reported. But MSHA said it is not currently tracking coronavirus cases in the nation’s mines. 

Neither is the West Virginia Office of Mine Health Safety and Training. In a statement, a spokesperson for the OMHST said, “The agency encourages all employees to limit exposure, and otherwise functions at full capacity with office staff working remotely. The agency can only enforce the code under which it operates. There remains nothing in code that would extend the agency’s jurisdiction to public health. As a result, it has no authority to provide guidelines or mandate procedures related to pandemic response.”

West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources also said it is not tracking coronavirus in the state’s coal mines. A spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources said in a statement, “While there have been no positive tests that we know of due to the coronavirus, either with miners or inspectors, we have distributed gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer to each mine safety specialist and have instructed them to observe social distancing. If during a mine inspection improper social distancing is observed, the inspector advises mine personnel on proper procedure and brings this to the attention of mine supervisors. Failure to comply after being brought to mine management could result in a violation being issued.”

Black Lung 

“The coal company you work for does not care how you feel, they one only care how much coal you put out,” miner Bobby Stevens of Smilax, Kentucky, told me over Facebook Messenger. Stevens worked underground for 11 years before being laid off in the high-profile bankruptcy of Blackjewel last summer. He took another mining job but was again laid off by Perry County Coal. “And then you even got these older guys who have lung problems and possibly black lung who are still underground working, and you would think these companies would know that those men are in great danger considering the virus attacks your respiratory system.”

Stevens is referring to the occupational disease that, after decades of declining rates, has reared back up to epidemic levels in the Appalachian coal fields. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimate one in five experienced Appalachian coal miners has some degree of black lung. 

Advanced stages of black lung disease can disable miners. That’s what happened to Arvin Hanshaw, 63, of Nicholas County, West Virginia. Hanshaw left the industry in 2012 because of his lung disease. “With my lungs in the situation they are now, I wouldn’t be able to fight the infection off.”

Before the coronavirus, Hanshaw received treatment for his black lung at a respiratory clinic in nearby Scarbro. The clinic specializes in helping disabled coal miners adapt to their new limitations and breathe as normally as possible. But the clinic closed its doors temporarily to protect its vulnerable patients. Hanshaw feels the difference. 

“It’s going to be really hard to find out actually how many people with the disease in the ICU or how many people who pass away have the underlying condition of black lung,” said Pikeville, Kentucky, radiologist and black lung researcher Dr. Brandon Crum. Crum raised the alarm about black lung rates in 2015 when he noticed rates of the illness at his clinic that were far higher than official data would suggest.

Crum has been calling all 300 of his complicated black lung patients — those with the most severe forms of the disease — to make sure they have the masks, gloves and social support they need to stay safe.

In Letcher County, Courtney Rhoades, a black lung association organizer with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, has set up a phone tree to reach out to disabled miners. “We’ve been getting a lot of calls from people who are really struggling with food, so we’ve been trying to get them set up with Meals on Wheels and things like that.” 

The pandemic hit when the coal industry was already in sharp decline.  Several companies declared bankruptcy in 2019, and according to notices about mass layoffs filed with state agencies in Kentucky and West Virginia, the coronavirus has already spurred more to close temporarily or for good. 

The industry trade group National Mining Association asked Congress and the White House in March for relief from fees that go toward health care for black lung victims and environmental cleanup on abandoned mine sites. The NMA’s requests have not yet been acknowledged.

 

This post has been updated to include a statement from the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources.

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.