The U.S. Attorney for Kentucky’s Western District unsealed eight fraud indictments Wednesday against employees of the bankrupt Armstrong Energy coal company for falsifying dust monitoring samples in two Kentucky mines.
“What the grand jury is charging and what the United States will prosecute is lying and cheating by a coal company to prevent the appropriate testing of this dust to protect miners,” Russell Coleman, United States Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, said at a press conference in Ownesboro.
Coleman sad those charged conspired to commit dust fraud “by knowingly and willfully altering the company’s required dust-sampling procedures,” either by circumventing the dust-sampling regulations, submitting false samples, or by making false statements on dust certification cards.
Controlling coal dust is important both to prevent the potential for explosions in mines and to limit miners’ exposure to dust, which causes lung disease. The region is experiencing an epidemic in cases of black lung disease.
Those charged include a superintendent, safety director and section foreman at Armstrong’s Parkway Mine and a safety director at the company’s Kronos mine. The indictments refer to Armstrong Coal Company as “an unindicted co-conspirator.” Coleman did not rule out the chance of further indictments.
By circumventing the dust-sampling procedures, the indictment alleges, “Armstrong Coal and its co-conspirators, avoided implementing ventilation and production controls that might cost money or lower production, and thus were able to save money.”
Those savings, the prosecutors allege, came “at the expense of exposing the miners employed at the Parkway and Kronos mines to the risks of breathing air with elevated levels of respirable coal dust, increasing their risks of contracting black lung.”
Miners Spoke Out
Coleman said whistle blowers who worked in the mines were critical to bringing the charges.
“At the end of the day, those that want to cheat in a complex industry like that will always attempt to cheat,” he said “So the best witnesses, the best sources of information, are the miners themselves.”
Acting on a tip from miners, federal inspectors found violations at Armstrong Energy’s Parkway and Kronos mines.
Mike Wilson, a former miner at Armstrong mines, was among those who alerted inspectors. Wilson said cheating on dust samples was common at many mines and that miners had little choice in the matter.
“I done it at all of them,” Wilson said. “Tampered with the dust pump at all of them. You had to do it their way or you didn’t stay.”
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, carried out several “impact” inspections at Armstrong Energy coal mines in Kentucky between 2014 and 2017. The special inspection program started under the Obama administration and focused on mines that MSHA said “merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns.”
MSHA records show the two Armstrong mines were cited for ventilation system problems and had a rate of violations higher than the national average for similar mines.
Wilson said he now has black lung disease.
Black Lung Surging
A 2016 investigation by NPR and Ohio Valley ReSource revealed a cluster of cases of the advanced form of the disease among Appalachian miners that was ten times the number reported by federal regulators at the time.
A study released early this year confirmed the surge in black lung. Scott Laney, an epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was involved in the study which focused on cases of complicated black lung, also called progressive massive fibrosis or PMF.
“We’ve gone from having nearly eradicated PMF in the mid-1990s to the highest concentration of cases that anyone has ever seen,” he said.
Fraud in the coal dust sampling programs has long been a problem in the coal industry. A major scandal erupted in the early 1990s and miners in the black lung clinics of Central Appalachia frequently say they have witnessed improper or fraudulent dust monitoring over the course of their careers.
Despite improvements such as an Obama-era rule to strengthen monitoring and control of dust in mines, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences says the coal mining industry needs a “fundamental shift” in the way it controls exposure to coal and rock dust in order to prevent lung disease among miners.
NPR’s Howard Berkes contributed to this story, which will be updated as more information is available.