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EDITOR’S NOTE: The incidence of black lung disease among Appalachian coal miners hit a 25-year-high in 2017. One in five working miners in the region who have been on the job at least 25 years has contracted the occupational respiratory disease, a study says. Earlier this month, five former coal-company employees pleaded not guilty to charges that they cheated on federally mandated air-quality tests that are in place to protect miners from black lung. Former underground miner Gary Bentley returns with a special installment of “In the Black” this week describing how miners, supervisors, and inspectors worked around air-sampling rules to ensure that bad samples did not interfere with production.
As I drilled the outside hole on the last row of roof bolts, I looked down to make sure that the air-sampling cartridge I was operating had not come out from underneath my shirt.
The cartridge was connected to a hose, which connected to a pump clipped to my belt, like a Walkman like when I was 10, pedaling my bike up and down the holler.
I moved the drill to the inside to put up my last bolt, adjusting the cartridge because the corner of the frame was digging into my sternum. The smallest of objects made life miserable when you’re working in 42 inches of height and bolting over three inches of mud and rock left behind by the continuous miner.
It was my day to take dust samples, the air-quality tests that were mandated by mine-safety rules. These rules required mines to measure the amount of coal-dust in the air we were breathing. They were supposed to help protect us from contracting black lung disease.
This was not my first go round of dust samples, and this would not be my last. There was more than one way to get an acceptable air test. One way was to walk around the entire section tightening ventilation curtain and hanging them back every time the scoop or shuttle car tore them down. Another was to protect the dust-monitoring cartridge from collection too much respirable dust by covering it with something like my shirt. It’s not like anyone asked me to do it. Everyone knew about it: my co-workers, the mine foreman, even the state inspector who signed the pump out to me that morning. We all know about black lung, we know how slow and miserable the death is, but come on, it’s not going happen to me. They say cigarettes cause cancer and alcohol causes liver failure. I’ve watched my dad smoke a couple packs a day and keep the Kwik Six liquor store in business for the last 26 years, and he’s doing just fine.
Thurman backed the roof bolter out of the cut. Our filters were clogged and we knew we needed to clean our dust collection boxes. That would put more dust in the air. “Hey Thurman, I’m gonna take this pump down to the intake and hang it up while we clean our boxes,” I said.
He replied, “All right, ya know you can wrap it with one of these clean rags and stuff in the glue box too. Either way it will be fine. Just wanted to save you a trip across the section.” I listened. As we cleaned our dust boxes we joked. “Hey Thurman, think I orta just stuff this f****** thing inside the dust filter and send it back? Tell them Todd wouldn’t give us time to hang our curtain or clean our filters and we have to breathe this shit all shift?” He chuckled with a better plan. “I tell ya what, hang it off the back next to the muffler and let it just take in all the shit coming out of there and we can park the ass end of this drill up there when the old man cuts that punch through. Orta get plenty of dust that way.”
We both chuckled. See, as miners, we knew the system. We knew that a pump going back with too clean of a sample would not pass inspection; it would be an obvious falsified test. We also knew that if the pump was sent back with too large of a sample it would be known that we intentionally forced non-respirable dust into the pump. There was a fine line that was about as wide as the ass end of a Mack truck. We could walk it easily. We wanted good results for many reasons. Mostly because we didn’t want to work our asses off keeping up the proper ventilation. We wanted to do our jobs and go home. Yea, we might have been putting ourselves at risk for health issues later on in life, but you don’t drive the speed limit out of fear of getting a ticket or at some point getting in an accident, do you? Hell no, you go 5-10 mph over because you are comfortable and don’t think anything bad will happen to you.
Six years later, a few, maybe 30 or more dust samples later. I am the section boss, shortly before we ride the elevator down the shaft, I meet a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector who will be riding to the section with us to do a routing dust sampling test. We all know the process, so I go to Shimwell and Eric, our scoop operators. “Y’all need to grab a few extra rolls of curtain, extra nails, and as soon as we get to the section, start tightening everything down and make sure all the curtains are right.” The curtains control airflow in the mine, and that affects the amount of dust that gets airborne.
I move over to Pat, Goat, and Bubba, our shuttle car operators. “You all keep all the curtains up and make sure the miners got fresh air. We’re gonna be taking dust samples today. Y’all know what to do.”
I moved onto our roof bolters and continuous miner operator. Same message: Keep the ventilation right, keep the pumps true, we need samples that look legitimate and pass.
When we arrive on the section the inspector assigns pumps to men. They have to wear them on his or her body for a continuous eight hours to record a full shift of production. We knew we couldn’t keep the dust levels down by pretending to have a mechanical failure. That sample would not pass scrutiny. We had to mine coal, keep our ventilation to meet the requirements of our permit, and get good results.
The cartridge or cassette was the business end of air-monitor pump. It was attached to one end of a hose, and the other end of the hose was attached to the pump that pulled air through cartridge to collect the sample. What mattered wasn’t necessarily how much dust was in the air but how much dust hit the cartridge.
Shuttle car drivers would often wrap the end of the cassette with a rag and drop it in their lunch box. The continuous miner operator would hang it just inside of his shirt to protect it from the dust that covered his lips, nose, and cheekbones.
As the inspector and I walked up to the working face of the section checking for ventilation, roof control, the usual, he asked to watch the roof bolters work. I was slightly nervous, afraid of what he might see. Would the pumps be stuffed into an empty glue box? Would they be wrapped in rags and placed in a lunch box? Would they be hanging off the back of the roof bolter pulling in all of the exhaust from the dust collection system? I didn’t know what to expect. I tightened the top of the ventilation curtain as I made my way to the roof bolter, then I heard the blower slow down. Then, the circular motion of a light, telling me to come to them. “F***, he’s found a violation,” I said to myself. The inspector looked at me, stone faced. “You see this? See where this pumps hanging?” I did, it was clipped on the small platform used to hold bolts, glue, and plates, directly above the operators hand controls. “Yea, it’s within the operators working area, that should be fine, right?” He smiled, much like a child taking a shit in the corner of the room, thinking that you can’t see them. “Oh, it’s completely legal. You won’t get a passing result, though. This thing is hanging right by the drill pot and every time he pushes too hard, plugs his steel, and it blows out, this pump’s going to suck all that rock and coal dust giving you a bad result. I’d recommend him ‘taking better care of his pump.’” He said those last six words while making air quotes like a 13-year-old girl. I knew what he meant, so did Carl. He was letting us know to make sure the pump didn’t pull in excessive dust and that he was OK with us not following the rules to a T.
This inspector wasn’t telling me to hang the pump in fresh air and completely falsify the result. He was letting it be known that he was aware and would not fine me for bending the rules to the splintering point to get passing results. Now if I were to bend that rule until it snapped, I’d probably be facing some serious charges. I knew this, he knew this, it was an unspoken policy. I worked with the inspectors and they would work with me. We all wanted this mine to continue running with as few hiccups as possible. His job relied on the performance of this mine just as much as mine did. Anyway, it’s not like we were skipping roof bolts and creating an immediate life threatening danger.
To quote Thurman, “It ain’t like any of us would get any black lung benefits anyway. You know those f****** politicians will find a way to screw us out of it. So f*** it, who cares?” This was a pretty good summary of my attitude as well, along with feeling invincible. Most of us in the industry felt that way.
Then six years after I left the industry there is a dramatic increase of black lung in young, old, and middle-aged miners. People are dying, mine foreman are being prosecuted. However, when you read the newspaper, it’s all the fault of the big, bad corporation. You never get the full story. Just like anything else, you either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want to know about what really goes on underground.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky. Read more of his columns here.