Mines are required to periodically submit coal dust levels to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to monitor particles that can cause the incurable black lung disease.
Inspection records show that in October 2020, government mine inspectors noticed that for two days in a row Black Diamond Coal submitted test results for mining machine operators in Floyd County, even though inspectors saw workers weren’t wearing a testing device those days. In the safety report, inspectors called the pattern an “unwarrantable failure” to comply with standards.
According to a federal indictment, Black Diamond’s dust sampling supervisor Walter Perkins told inspectors the testing machine was broken. Perkins claims he gave the machine to a miner to wear for the day, as regulations require, but took it out of service because “the miner man…hollered that the pump went off and said diagnosis failure.”
But federal prosecutors say that story was a lie: Perkins was knowingly trying to cover up the fact that he never gave the testing machine to the miner, according to the indictment.
Kim Redding is a former MSHA inspector who now consults with mining companies on compliance. He said if the company hadn’t submitted records, there might have just been a fine. But falsification of records dug the hole deeper.
“Why would you lie about it?” Redding said. “If you screwed up, you screwed up. That’s the thing – that’s how these guys get in trouble is they falsify something. Because their job is to make sure [safety] things are happening. And if they’re not, push to get it happening.”
Inspection records show Perkins left the testing device running in a first-aid building – not the mine. The report says the machine had no apparent failures that would have caused it to stop taking accurate measurements.
About a week after the inspection, MSHA records show a coal dust sample taken by the company on the continuous mining machine well above government limits.
After a citation in October 2020, it took until December for MSHA inspectors to affirm that Black Diamond Coal was back on track with taking and submitting valid coal dust tests.
If convicted, the company could incur steep fines and the dust sampling supervisor Walter Perkins faces fines and imprisonment. Both are mandated to appear in court in September.
The indictment comes amid a growing epidemic of the black lung disease in Central Appalachia.
Diagnoses of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly called black lung, have steadily increased in recent years. Research has tied the swell to a variety of factors–the ratio of rock-to-coal is different and miners increasingly encounter quartz, which produces lung-damaging silica dust.
Mining is more mechanized than it used to be, too. Coal companies increasingly use continuous mining machines, which grinds up coal and rock into a fine dust that burrows deep into the lungs.
New research has directly tied silica dust to black lung disease, but federal regulators continue to use old standards that don’t directly address its contributions.
According to a 2018 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, one out of five coal miners will develop black lung. One in 20 will develop progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of the disease, which is linked to silica dust.