Mine Managers Indicted For Lying About Exposing Workers to Black Lung Disease
A federal grand jury in Kentucky indicted eight former managers at Armstrong Coal for deceiving coal mine safety organizations and exposing coal miners to dangerous coal dust that causes black lung disease.
The indictment alleges the miners are guilty of conspiracy to defraud federal mine safety officials between 2013 and 2015. The indictment is a result of multiple whistleblowers coming forward, all former employees of Armstrong Coal.
Four years ago three former Armstrong Coal miners in Western Kentucky approached Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky attorney, about their concerns regarding the health conditions in the mine. Their stories received national attention when they were published on Huffington Post. Oppegard then sent the Huffington Post article to the Department of Justice, which ultimately lead to the indictments.
One of the first to speak out was Michael Wilson, 63, a former underground coal miner who worked at Armstrong Coal for many years and now has black lung disease. Black lung disease results from breathing in coal mine dust.
Wilson can barely breathe well enough now to play with his grandchildren in the yard.
“Armstrong should have done what they were supposed to do by the law,” Wilson told InsideClimateNews. “I wake up all during the night, coughing and choking. I can’t breathe. I can’t hardly walk to the mailbox now.”
Another whistleblower is Brandon Shemwell, 38, who though he doesn’t have black lung disease, said numerous family and friends had been afflicted by it. Shemwell worked for Armstrong for nine years and is a third-generation miner. He came forward to speak out against Armstrong’s unsafe mining practices.
He described working in such narrow and tight passageways to InsindeClimateNews that sometimes, “you couldn’t even see your hands in front of you.”
“It was all about production, getting a ton out, more money to make,” said Shemwell, who is now a truck driver. The company was “paying my bills, but when they come to safety, they were not at the top of the list at all.”
The Charges Against Armstrong Coal
According to the charges, the coal mine managers would regularly remove coal dust testing monitors early in the shift or place the devices in areas with cleaner and less dusty air.
They were also alleged to have dispatched coal workers without dust testing devices to spots where the devices were supposed to be in use.
Thirdly, the mine supervisors allegedly ordered the dust monitors to be run in areas of clean air before and after shifts, in order to manipulate the results to show lower dust counts.
The Consequences of Manipulating Coal Dust ReportsNot only are the indicted managers facing up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines, coal miners like Shemwell and Wilson are facing increasing rates of black lung disease.
“The health of our miners matters to Western Kentucky communities and those sworn to protect them,” said U.S. attorney Russel Coleman. “When companies and their senior officials are prepared to disregard the law and put miners at risk, they should also be prepared to face federal prosecutors.”
Coal mine workers who work for long hours and years in underground passageways can develop pneumoconiosis, which is the medical term for black lung disease. Coal workers lungs can turn black from years of breathing in excessive amounts of coal mine dust.
The resulting respiratory ailments from black lung disease results in shortness of breath, intense coughing episodes, excessive fatigue and overall reduced quality of life due to difficulty breathing. At the advanced stage, sufferers may require oxygen and even develop lung failure to the point of requiring a lung transplant. There is no cure for the disease at the moment, but some drugs may ease the symptoms.
As the InsideClimateNews article stated since 1968 black lung disease has killed more than 76,000 miners and cost more than $45 billion in compensation payouts.
Black Lung Disease on the Rise Again
For decades the rates of black lung disease had been on the decline, but in recent years the disease has been on the rise. Between 1970 and 2010 the rate of black lung disease dropped from roughly 35 percent to five percent of miners.
The decrease in black lung disease was largely attributed to the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act which passed in 1969 and was amended in 1977. It established safety procedures, training standards and benefits for miners battling diagnosed with the disease.
A 2018 report from the National Academy of Sciences found more hot spots of black lung disease in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.
“The whole purpose [of the coal mine act] was to say a miner could work a 30-year career and when they retire, they could still lead a normal life,” said Oppegard. “But we’re actually going backward now, with all the new hot spots they are finding.”
Why the disease is on the rise again is not fully understood.
When miners do get diagnosed they often end up in long battles fighting to receive the medical benefits federal law entitles them too. InsideClimateNews documented in their Choke Hold series how difficult it is for miners to go up against large mining corporations who employ teams of doctors and lawyers to challenge diagnoses and medical opinions.
Wilson said he had accepted his fate and black lung diagnosis. “We had a good life, some great kids, great grandkids and we have great-great-grandkids.
“I am living just one day at a time.”