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The Coal Workers You Didn't Know Existed—And Why They May Be At Risk

Thousands of workers may be at risk of chronic disease from the chemicals used to process coal—including MCHM, which recently contaminated the drinking water of nearly 300,000 West Virginia residents.
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Alfred Ray and Willa Price. Photo courtesy Alfred Ray Price.

Alfred Ray Price, who worked for 28 years in the coal industry, shown with his wife Willa. Price believes that his health problems are directly linked to the years he spent working with chemicals used to clean coal. Photo courtesy of Alfred Ray Price.

Route 3 cuts through the heart of southern West Virginia coal country, but from the road, you might not even know it. Much of the surface mining is above your head, along the ridges of the Appalachian mountains that flank the road. You’re not likely to spot the entrance to an underground mine, either, though there’s one sure way to tell a mine is nearby: the towering metal structures of coal preparation plants punctuate the landscape. Stilted conveyer belts pass over the road, carrying coal from the mines. Once the coal arrives at these plants, it’s treated with chemicals to remove impurities and prepared for sale.

Two class-action lawsuits have revealed a great deal of evidence, and some testimony, regarding chemicals at coal prep plants.

The dangers faced by coal miners have been well-documented—black lung disease, for example, was identified decades ago. But about 15.3 percent of workers in the mining industry—an estimated 10,500 people—are employed not in mines but in preparation plants, mill operations, or breakers nationwide, and evidence suggests that these prep plants pose their own dangers for those working inside.

Coal prep plant on Route 3. Photo by Erin L. McCoy.

Part of a coal preparation plant, seen from West Virginia's Route 3. Photo by Erin L. McCoy.

A variety of chemicals are used in these prep plants on a daily basis, many of them to purify coal. MCHM (4-methyl-cyclohexanemethanol), the chemical that left almost 300,000 West Virginians without safe drinking water after a spill in January, is one of these chemicals. Hundreds of people sought hospital treatment after MCHM exposure during that crisis, and at least 20 were admitted. But what are the dangers for coal preparation plant workers who are exposed to higher concentrations of these chemicals on a regular basis for the span of a career?

As with MCHM, the answer proves to be nebulous. For many of these chemicals, complete information on their potential health effects isn’t available, and long-term effects are even more difficult to establish. One workers’ rights organization, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), has been seeking updated regulations regarding chemical safety standards and reporting for years.

Alfred Ray Price is one of many former preparation plant workers who believe their health problems can be directly linked to their time spent around chemicals. Price worked in the coal industry for 28 years, including 19 at the Montcoal #7 Prep Plant in Raleigh County, W.V. He remembers spraying coal cars with antifreeze in the wintertime to keep the coal from sticking—32 gallons per car—while standing on a catwalk above.

“Have you ever sprayed a water hose in a bucket, and get all the mist up from it?” Price asked. “By the time I would get through spraying the cars, I would be soaking wet with it. Actually, it would be running down my throat. It was a real sweet taste.”

Price had to stop working because of health problems at age 47. He said PET scans of his brain pointed to cognitive disorders, including short-term memory loss. He later became involved in one of two class-action lawsuits in Marshall County, W.V., in which about two dozen plaintiffs claimed similar chemical exposure and health problems. Many of those plaintiffs also claimed they spent years working around chemicals without being warned they could be dangerous.

One suit was settled last year, and the other was dismissed. The settlement provides for a one-time health exam for prep plant workers—but specifies that these exams aren’t intended to determine whether any health problems may have been caused by the chemicals in question. Thomas F. Basile, attorney to several of the plaintiffs, is attempting to reinstate some of the claims in these cases, and says he’s considering an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Price and some other plaintiffs aren’t satisfied with the results, but the lawsuits did achieve one thing: they placed on public record a great deal of evidence, and some testimony, regarding chemicals at coal prep plants.

One plaintiff, Franklin Stump, told a judge that inhalation of and skin contact with chemicals was a regular occurrence at the Montcoal #7 plant, where he worked for 27 years. Much of this exposure happened during the “frothing” process, in which fuel oil and a variety of chemicals are mixed with water to create a bubbling liquid that separates fine coal particles from other materials.

“I’ve unloaded the trucks with the bags [of chemicals] in it over my shoulder, carried them up the steps, dumped them in the funnels, and it all come[s] back in your face,” Stump said, according to a court transcript. “And I’ve seen pipes bust and the stuff go all over the walls and all over your face, and I’ve waded, like I said, up to my knees.”

Price and other workers mostly spoke from their experiences in the 1990s and earlier. Phil Smith, director of communications at the UMWA, points out that at today’s newer prep plants, many processes are automated to prevent workers from mixing chemicals directly into vats of frother, thereby reducing their exposure. But workers are still exposed to these chemicals sometimes, Smith added.

So the question is, how dangerous are these chemicals, and do workers need better protection against them?

Chemicals you can find at a coal prep plant

Most chemicals used in coal preparation don’t appear too dangerous to human health, according to the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) provided in the Marshall County cases. In case you’ve never heard of MSDSs, these information sheets list chemical product contents, potential hazards, and potential health risks. They are prepared by chemical producers and are supposed to accompany any chemicals used in a workplace. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that MSDSs be made “readily accessible” to employees.

But companies often withhold the exact contents or proportions of chemical mixtures as trade secrets. And that’s not the only information that’s missing; in the case of the MCHM spill, public health specialists have had a hard time proving just how dangerous (or safe) MCHM is, since not enough testing has been done to know for sure.

“We was never told or never shown any safety data sheets on it, so we could look ourselves and see what it contained.”

The Elk River spill makes the evidence presented in the two Marshall County lawsuits all the more immediate. Documents presented as evidence in the cases reveal that exposure to these chemicals—especially without the proper safety gear—can cause serious health problems ranging from pulmonary edema to central nervous system problems, birth defects, and heart problems.

In a response to a request for evidence in one of the lawsuits—Denver and Debra Pettry, et al. v. Peabody Holding Company, et al.—chemical company Cytec Industries Inc. provided MSDSs for the chemicals it had sold since December 1993 to defendants Massey Coal Services Inc., Goals Coal Company, Performance Coal Company, Bandytown Coal Company, and Elk Run Coal Company Inc.

While these documents do not constitute a complete list of the chemicals used in coal prep plants, they do offer a snapshot of the potential health hazards that prep plant workers like Price faced and still face.

Coal Prep Plant Chemicals Graphic

Graphic by Michelle Ney. Research by Erin L. McCoy.

The UMWA believes updates to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration standards regarding these chemicals are long overdue.

“We continue to see cases of cancer and other health issues due to chemical exposures,” said Dennis O’Dell, director of the UMWA’s Department of Occupational Health and Safety. “The PELs or Personal Exposure Limits have not been adjusted since the 1980s. We believe that MSHA (and OSHA) should reexamine PELs and further a study to see what occurs when workers become exposed to multiple chemical[s] at once. Right now we have MSDS material on each individual chemical, but what happens when those are all used at the same time?”

The Mine Safety and Health Administration acknowledged this point. “There are no permissible exposure limits for many of the chemicals used in coal processing,” MSHA’s Technical Support division said in response to inquiries for this article. "However, these chemicals are considered hazardous and are covered by MSHA’s Hazard Communication standards.”

On April 9, MSHA issued a health hazard alert in response to the coal processing chemical spills earlier this year. The alert reminded operators that miners and plant employees must be provided information on the chemicals they’re using.

Alpha Natural Resources (which acquired defendant Massey Coal Services Inc.) and the American Chemistry Council did not respond to interview requests. Representatives of Peabody Holding Company, BASF Corporation (which acquired defendant Ciba Specialty Chemicals Corporation), and the American Chemistry Council had no comment. OSHA did not comment on the record.

Safety precautions were ignored, workers say

During Jackie Browning’s 14 years working in coal mines, he always wore a respirator. But when the Naoma, W.V., resident started operating a bulldozer at a coal prep plant in 1991, he didn’t think he needed one any more.

Browning worked outside around the coal piles, not indoors with the frother, and he says that for the first seven years, the job didn’t seem to affect his health.

Polyacrylimide's molecular structure.The Dangers of Polyacrylamide
While it’s difficult to assess exactly how dangerous many prep plant chemicals are, that’s especially true of a substance called polyacrylamide. For the full story on this chemical, see Appendix A.

But things changed in late 1998, when by Browning’s account, the prep plant where he worked started making more frother—and consequently, using more chemicals. He’d be bulldozing the piles of treated coal, and the fumes would come in through the heater. Browning contends that these fumes started affecting his health almost immediately; his mouth would hurt and he got the shakes. Three weeks in, Browning said he complained to his supervisor, but nothing changed.

Finally, about six weeks after his symptoms started, Browning and a coworker were rushed to the emergency room. That was his last day of work, after 29 years in the coal industry.

“The last day I worked, at noon, they brought me a respirator. It was too late for me,” he said.

Browning isn’t the only worker who claims he wasn’t told the whole story about how to be safe around chemicals in the workplace. Price and other plaintiffs in the Marshall County lawsuits say they weren’t provided with appropriate protective gear, and didn’t know for years what chemicals they were using.

“They never mentioned toxins down there, chemicals. That was never, never, never mentioned. Never had a safety meeting on that,” Browning said.

Price agrees. “We never did have no idea what [it] was,” he said, referring to many of the frothing chemicals. “We was never told or never shown any safety data sheets on it, so we could look ourselves and see what it contained.”

Failing to provide this information would be illegal. But industry representatives dispute these claims.

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