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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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Nancy Gravatt, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association, countered that prep plant employees are properly informed about the chemicals they’re using, and that MSDSs “are posted both for reading at any time and available in the event of an emergency.” She added that employees “are trained on the substances brought onto property” at these plants.

In a stress test not long after the emergency, Browning said, “I couldn’t even stand up on a treadmill.”

However, Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers said he’s not surprised that workers may not have had access to the data sheets.

“We keep our members informed about all the chemicals that are used in coal preparation plants, and if worked with properly, they’re safe,” Smith said. But, he said, he believes nonunion operations are less likely to inform their employees regarding chemicals and their safety hazards. (Employees are never required to wear safety equipment, Smith pointed out.)

Shumate Branch coal sludge dam. Photo courtesy Vivian Stockman.

The Shumate's Branch Coal Sludge Dam, with a coal prep plant just below the dam. Photo courtesy of Vivian Stockman /; flyover courtesy

Employee access to data sheets isn’t the only point of contention between workers and the industry. Another question that’s difficult to answer is just how high workers’ chemical exposure really is. Gravatt said that MCHM is used at safe concentrations.

“Typical dosage rates for frothers like MCHM are less than 12 parts per million. In other words, a few hundred cubic centimeters per minute enter into 8 to 10 thousand gallons per minute of coal slurry,” Gravatt wrote in an email. This is higher than the CDC’s recommendation of no more than 1 part per million of MCHM in drinking water. But Gravatt said there’s a difference.

“Coal prep plant employees clearly are not drinking the frothing agent. These are two very different standards. It is inaccurate to mix the two,” Gravatt wrote.

Yet workers like Price claim they did inhale and ingest the chemicals they used in the frothing process.

“We ingested it, inhaled it, got it on our skin, even digested it,” Price said. “You’d be inside of a closed area and you’d stay wet with it, and we didn’t think much about it at the time until we started getting sick one by one.”

Today, Browning suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity and burning mouth syndrome. But relatively speaking, he’s doing better. For two months after his hospitalization, Browning said, his lungs burned. (He’s not a smoker.) It took almost two years for his bloodshot eyes to clear. In a stress test not long after the emergency, Browning said, “I couldn’t even stand up on a treadmill.”

Detoxification treatments (not covered by insurance) have cost Browning thousands of dollars, and his worker’s compensation claim was denied.

More information for better solutions

Given how little we know about the toxicity and health impacts of chemicals, mapping out a clear alternative is difficult.

Dr. Alan M. Ducatman of the West Virginia University School of Public Health has been fielding health questions from prep plant workers for more than two decades. He said it’s hard to determine the cause of an ailment when you don’t know what chemicals workers are exposed to in the first place.

“We should be assuming it's deadly toxic until shown otherwise.”

As a result, few symptoms explicitly point to prep plant chemicals as their cause, Ducatman explained—and there’s no single test that can determine whether these chemicals are at the root of workers’ health problems.

The solution, Ducatman believes, is more toxicity testing for the chemicals workers are using: “People talk about how much it costs [but] the industry is making a tremendous amount of money.”

Yet the challenge of this testing isn’t just financial—it’s also a problem of logistics.

“It’s a simple case that there are millions of chemicals available. … It takes time to do these toxicity studies,” explained Dr. Timothy C. Eisele, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Tech. So the focus has been on chemicals that have already proven themselves dangerous.

But until these logistical problems have been solved, transparency and caution are essential, insisted Vernon Haltom, executive director of the nonprofit anti-mining organization Coal River Mountain Watch.

“We should be assuming it's deadly toxic until shown otherwise, and even then not rely on one or two tests on rats 20 years ago,” Haltom said.

Dr. James G. Speight, who has worked as a chemist and consultant in the coal and oil industries for more than 45 years, agrees that caution is key.

In referencing one coal prep chemical, polyacrylamide, Speight said: “I tend to err on the side of caution and say that chemicals of that type are dangerous. They can be poisonous.”

Today, Browning has to be cautious about every chemical he uses, down to his detergent, but it’s not by choice. He’s highly sensitive to a lot of household chemicals, which can irritate his burning mouth and other symptoms.

“I was a five- and six-day worker every week. … I was an everyday man, and I worked hard,” Browning said. “If people knew what I went through—they don’t have enough money to compensate you for this stuff.”

Appendix A: 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. At first glance, polyacrylamide doesn’t look that bad. It’s even used in cosmetics and water treatment. But polyacrylamide poses two greater dangers: first, commercial polyacrylamide often contains traces of acrylamide, the essential building block for polyacrylamide. And second, polyacrylamide also tends to break down into acrylamide.

What’s wrong with acrylamide? It may cause cancer and birth defects. One potential health impact, neurotoxicity, was first observed in laboratory animals more than 56 years ago.

A report prepared for the California Public Health Foundation in 1988 confirmed that traces of the more dangerous acrylamide are “usually present in the various bulk commercial formulations” of polyacrylamide. A representative of the American Cyanamid Company (of which Cytec is a spinoff) is on the distribution list of this report—meaning that by the time the company produced the MSDSs, all dated after 1989, it should have known that there was some acrylamide in its polyacrylamide products.

Data sheets for polyacrylamide provided in the Pettry case list minor health risks such as eye and skin irritation, but don’t mention acrylamide as a potential danger. Cytec did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article, and its attorney in the lawsuit offered no comment.

But should Cytec and other companies have to report whether acrylamide is part of its chemical mixtures? According to a the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s Technical Support division, “For mixtures, operators must list non-carcinogenic hazardous chemicals that make up 1% or more of the mixture by weight or volume and must list carcinogenic hazardous chemicals that make up 0.1 percent or more of the mixture by weight or volume.”

It’s unclear how high concentrations of acrylamide may have been in polyacrylamide products around the time of the Cytec MSDSs in question. But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, residual acrylamide concentrations have been as high as 5 percent in the past—although improvements in the treatment process through the years have reduced levels to around 0.3 percent. A 1994 EPA requirement helped spur that change.

Many more recent MSDSs for polyacrylamide, presented as evidence in the Pettry case, also do not list the presence of acrylamide. Yet at least one polyacrylamide product that Cytec sold to coal companies contained “(a) chemical(s) known in the State of California to cause cancer,” according to the MSDS. Polyacrylamide isn’t known as a carcinogen under California law, but acrylamide is. By the EPA’s standards, acrylamide remains a “probable human carcinogen,” and has been defined as such since at least 1994.

But the dangers of chemical exposure depend on how much of the chemical you’re exposed to, cautioned Dr. James G. Speight, who has worked as a chemist and consultant in the coal and oil industries for more than 45 years.

“Most people sprinkle a little salt on their food. If you eat a pound of salt, you’re going to die. It’s a question of degree,” Speight said.

Nancy Gravatt of the National Mining Association said she was not aware of the use of polyacrylamide or acrylamide at coal prep plants, and said she could not provide a list of chemicals used at such plants.

Appendix B: A battle in the courts over coal chemical transparency

Over the last decade, two class-action lawsuits in West Virginia have given a voice to coal preparation plant workers who attribute their health problems to chemical exposure in the workplace.

Today, Basile is fighting to reinstate claims in the Pettry case against Patriot Coal Corporation.

One case, Denver and Debra Pettry, et al. v. Peabody Holding Company, et al., was filed in 2002 and sought medical monitoring for prep plant and water plant workers, along with punitive damages. A similar case, William K. Stern, et al. v. Chemtall Inc., et al., was filed in 2003 and sought medical monitoring only. Both cases zeroed in on a particular chemical, polyacrylamide, whose monomer form, acrylamide, may cause cancer. The Pettry case also sought more information on other chemicals used in the prep plants.

The Pettry case claimed that the defendant chemical companies intentionally failed to warn workers of the dangers of the chemicals they were using, and that the defendant coal companies created unsafe working conditions.

Polyacrylamide is used in the “frothing” process, in which coal is separated from other minerals in order to purify it for sale.

In 2013, the Pettry case was dismissed because in most cases, plaintiffs hadn’t filed their case within the two-year statute of limitations, and because the plaintiffs’ attorney, Thomas F. Basile, had reportedly missed court dates and didn’t provide requested evidence on time. Basile, who represents some plaintiffs in both of the cases, has been fighting the decision ever since, but in January, his appeals to overturn the settlement in the Stern case and the Pettry case dismissal were turned down by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

Basile argues these dismissals ignored the arguments or issues raised in the appeals, including requests he made in both appeals to unseal 230 pages of documents related to ethical issues, which involved conflicts of interest for lawyers in both cases.

“It’s been a long, hard, drawn-out fight, and we lost,” said Alfred Ray Price, one of the plaintiffs in the Pettry suit, in response to January's ruling.

The Stern lawsuit appeared to have a happier ending, but many of the plaintiffs, including Price, walked away unsatisfied.

Stern reached a settlement of almost $14 million in 2013, with about half of this money allocated toward one-time medical examinations for prep plant workers, and the other half going toward attorneys’ fees and costs. Any money not used for medical testing will be donated to two West Virginia universities.

“The only ‘benefit’ provided to class members by the proposed settlement is a one-time medical examination that resembles little more than an annual medical examination that most of the class members have likely already had on more than one occasion,” Basile wrote in an email. “[And] there is no follow-up testing provided in the settlement should a medical examiner diagnose any disorder that needs further examination or consultation.”

The Stern suit sought funds for medical monitoring—but Basile, Price, and other plaintiffs insist that a one-time exam does not constitute “monitoring.”
The settlement also specifies that these exams are not designed “as a research vehicle.” In other words, they’re not intended to determine whether any health conditions discovered during these exams were caused by polyacrylamide or acrylamide.

In objecting to the settlement, Basile wrote that it “assur[es] that nothing will be learned about the types of ailments or occupational diseases suffered by those in the class who have been exposed to toxic chemicals in their work environment.”

Today, Basile is fighting to reinstate claims in the Pettry case against Patriot Coal Corporation; those claims were dismissed despite the fact that those claims were stayed while Patriot underwent bankruptcy proceedings. Basile said he is also considering an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Erin McCoy.Erin L. McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in education, environment, cultural issues, and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @ErinLMcCoy.

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