As COVID-19 spreads, Virginia coal mines remain open

An A&G Coal mine in Southwest Virginia, July 2019. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Coal mining continues in Southwest Virginia even as workplace constraints prevent miners from following many of the social distancing practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Monday, all of Virginia’s coal and mineral mines that had been open before the appearance of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, were still operating, said Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy spokesperson Tarah Kesterson.

“We are very concerned that the appearance of coronavirus in a coal mine will rapidly spread,” said Phil Smith, the director of communications and government affairs for the United Mine Workers of America. But, he added, “it’s the nature of the work and the nature of how you get to the work that you’re going to be closer than six feet apart.”

As Gov. Ralph Northam tightens orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has led to six deaths and 38 hospitalizations so far in Virginia, businesses are increasingly being required to shut down or allow employees to telework.

But while other industries that remain open are implementing social distancing practices, the terrain of a coal mine often leaves little room for separation.

Workers at underground mines must take an elevator and then special vehicles such as mantrips to reach their work sites, all of which are confined and generally enclosed, said Smith. Once at their site, “they usually spread out a bit, but “then at the end of the shift they repeat that process,” he said.

“To a certain degree there’s only so much you can do in a coal mining atmosphere,” he said.

Kesterson said that many mining companies are doing extra cleaning and encouraging workers to follow social distancing whenever possible, while “some of the larger mines are staggering shifts to avoid having too many people together at once — especially upon entering the mine.”

Because COVID-19 impairs respiratory function, coal miners may be at elevated risk from the disease, especially in the Central Appalachian region, where the most severe form of black lung has been on the rise over the past decade.

Respirators, which are a standard part of miners’ personal protective equipment, may provide some extra safety. On Saturday, Virginia Health and Human Resources Secretary Daniel Carey said that state officials were assessing whether mining respirators could be used by medical personnel on the front lines of the pandemic, saying that “they may look a little different, but they’re perfectly serviceable in a health environment.”

An ‘essential’ industry

Coal mining is likely to be classified as an essential service as the state continues to restrict daily activities, but the conclusion isn’t a foregone one. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security includes the energy sector among its 16 “critical infrastructure” sectors that have “a special responsibility to maintain [their] normal work schedule” during the COVID-19 outbreak. But whether coal mining falls within that category is largely left up to state and local officials, which, the same directive says, “should use their own judgment in using their authorities and issuing implementation directives and guidance.” Industries are also urged to “use their own judgment” in such decision-making.

Reactions have been varied. 

Last week Blackhawk Mining announced it would temporarily halt operations and furlough most of its 2,300 workers at eight mines across West Virginia and Kentucky in response to COVID-19. And Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered that his state’s coal mines be shut down, labeling them “non-life-sustaining businesses,” although he later reversed that decision.

In contrast, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Friday that “if there is anything in the world that is absolutely essential, it’s going to be coal,” the Register-Herald reported.

The National Mining Association, according to a letter obtained by Reuters, has also sought to convince Congress that “it is imperative” to keep coal plants running “in the interest of national security.”

In Virginia, about 2,900 people were recorded by DMME as working in the coal industry in 2019, although those numbers were diminished by the summer Blackjewel bankruptcy that put nearly 500 miners in the state out of work.

Coal also produced about 10 percent of Virginia’s electricity in 2018 and almost 25 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Administration. 

“You can’t just shut it off without expecting to shut off a quarter of our nation’s electric generation capacity,” said Smith. “I don’t think anyone wants to go down that road.”