Whistleblower Justin Greenwell told regulators that his company, Armstrong Coal, was misreporting the dust levels in his mine, potentially putting miners in danger of black lung disease. (Photo: Dave Jamieson)
The dust was so thick that Justin Greenwell could barely see what was in front of him.
A 29-year-old miner, Greenwell had grown accustomed to working in the coal dust below ground in the Parkway Mine in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Yet the prevalence of the dust in the air bothered Greenwell more and more. He'd labored for seven years in the mines, and already he was experiencing shortness of breath when he worked on his farm on the weekends.
Prolonged exposure to coal dust leads to coal worker's pneumoconiosis, known colloquially as black lung. It's a miserable disease that forces miners to live out their last days coughing and gasping for air. To protect employees, mine operators are required by law to keep their coal dust levels in check. While inspectors do some of the monitoring, the operators themselves also collect samples and provide them to federal regulators to prove they're in compliance.
According to Greenwell, there was a simple reason the Parkway Mine managed to avoid fines despite all the dust: Its operator, Armstrong Coal, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Armstrong Energy, was submitting misleading samples to regulators.
"It's been going on since I started there," Greenwell alleged in an interview. "All these guys in management, they know it's wrong. But they don't care about our health."
On Jan. 24 this year, Greenwell's allegations of inaccurate sampling apparently proved true. That day, officials with the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) performed what's known in the industry as a "blitz." Pursuing an anonymous tip, they showed up unannounced to inspect the mine. According to witnesses, supervisors at the mine went into a panic, ordering workers to shut down their machines and stop running coal.
There was good reason for the freakout. According to Labor Department documents, Armstrong miners weren't wearing their coal dust pumps. These are the devices that measure the amount of dust in a mine's atmosphere; when a company is sampling dust levels, miners are supposed to wear them for a full shift as they work. At Parkway, the MSHA report says an inspector found the two dust pumps hanging away from where the coal was being mined and at the power center, where the air is much cleaner. The pumps were guaranteed to register dust levels much lower than those to which miners were actually being exposed.
The MSHA inspector cited Armstrong with "reckless disregard" for the law, saying the company demonstrated an "unwarrantable failure" in the incident -- the agency's most serious class of safety violation. MSHA has proposed a fine of $150,600, though Armstrong can fight the penalty. Greenwell said he's been interviewed as part of an apparent MSHA investigation into the fraud allegations as well. MSHA would not confirm or deny that such an investigation is underway.
"There's been cheating ever since I've been there," said another Parkway miner, Mike "Flip" Wilson, a 40-year veteran who's been at Parkway since Armstrong started producing coal there in 2009.
A spokesman for Armstrong, which operates seven mines in Western Kentucky, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Fed up with what he described as dangerous working conditions, Greenwell acknowledges that he was the one who provided the anonymous tip to inspectors. Once it became apparent that other miners knew as much, Greenwell's lawyers informed Armstrong in writing that Greenwell was responsible. Now, his whistleblowing may have cost him his career.
Greenwell's case underscores the challenges facing federal regulators as they overhaul the rules protecting miners from black lung disease, which played a role in an estimated 10,000 deaths in a recent 10-year period, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Despite an overall decline since the 1970s, black lung has made a resurgence in recent years in pockets of coal country. After the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, which took 29 lives in West Virginia in April 2010, autopsies of the 24 miners whose lungs could be examined revealed that 17 had black lung. Five of those workers had been working in the mines for less than a decade.
Though no one can say for certain why black lung has surged in some areas, it probably has to do with the fact that much of the easy-to-reach coal in the U.S. is now gone. That means coal operators are cutting into more rock to get to the coal seams that are left. Many miners are likely now breathing nastier dust mixtures, as well as working longer hours in it.
In a step toward making good on its promise to end black lung, the Labor Department in April rolled out long-awaited reforms to coal dust regulations. The government is lowering the allowable level of coal dust in a mine from 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter of air to 1.5 -- a move that should force operators to better ventilate their mines and protect workers from dirty air.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health had recommended a tighter threshold of 1.0. The 1.5 level appears to be a compromise with a coal lobby that's long fought reform. Still, mine safety advocates welcomed the new requirement as a much-needed step in the right direction.
"This probably will be the most significant worker health and safety regulation that gets out of the Obama administration," said Celeste Monforton, an occupational health expert and former MSHA staffer. "It is very important, and it is a big improvement."
The new regulations also mandate the use of a personal dust monitor, a device that provides real-time readings of a mine's coal dust level. The monitor will replace the outdated dust pumps used in the current system, which requires miners to take a series of samples every two months and then submit them to regulators for analysis. Unless they later sought out the results, most miners would never know how much dust they'd been working in.
"It's an amazing piece of technology," Joe Main, the head of MSHA, said of the new dust monitor. "It's not only going to help miners know themselves, but it's also going to be a better tracking system that leaves a trail behind. You can look at the data and determine when it's been sitting on the power center for half a shift."
The introduction of the real-time monitor could bring unprecedented transparency, theoretically enabling miners to refuse dangerous work in dusty conditions. But the monitors, which MSHA says cost between $13,000 and $15,000 apiece, will be used only by certain miners during designated sampling periods, much like the dust pumps now in use.
And even with the reforms, regulators will still rely on the industry to police itself when it comes to coal dust. If the new rules survive a court review requested by the coal lobby, the personal dust monitors will go into use two years from now. But the program will still leave it to mine operators to do most of the monitoring and submit their data to the government.
Main said he is confident that the reforms will make it much harder for mine operators to cheat on their samples.
"When you look at all these pieces together, the miners of the future will have a better life in the mines than in the past," he said.
Other industry observers are less confident the cheating will actually come to an end.
"Outlaw coal operations didn't comply with the 2.0 standard. So why will they comply with 1.5?" said Tony Oppegard, a lawyer for Greenwell who's represented miners in safety cases for more than 30 years. "If an operator thinks that way, they will find ways to get around it. There will be some creative cheating going on."
"I think that there will always be ways to cheat," said Ellen Smith, managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, an independent publication covering the industry. "Simply put, the responsibility really lies with the miners themselves