2017 was one of the most fatal years for coal miners; a shocking increase after a record low in coal miner deaths the year prior. There were fatalities across the United States, from Alabama, West Virginia, Montana, Kentucky, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. None of the fatalities were from unexpected disasters like an explosion, rather, fatalities occurred from preventable safety hazards, such as lack of training and equipment malfunction.
WildEarth Guardians did a deep dive into the issue of mine health and safety violations in 2017, and the results were very telling: there was one health and safety violation every hour across the top 50 biggest mines in the U.S. The federal agency responsible for regulating mines is the Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”) under the U.S. Department of Labor. MSHA conducts regular inspections looking for safety hazards such as excessive coal dust (which can cause explosions), loose rock (which can fall and injure workers), electrocution threats, volatile methane gas, and poor ventilation. Serious violations must be fixed before mining can continue, and some mining companies may face monetary fines for violations.
The violations recorded by MSHA in 2017 were not trivial – there were over 4 violations every day that were considered “significant and substantial” across these mines.Violations that are labeled “significant and substantial” means that serious injury or illness is likely if inspectors do not immediately intervene. These violations mean that workers’ lives are certainly at risk.
It’s no wonder that miners are facing an increasingly fatal work environment. These violations point to a heightening and dangerous problem.
For example, at the Jim Bridger Mine in Wyoming, where a worker died in September 2017 after being buried in coal, federal mine safety data showed that owner PacifiCorp been previously fined for roof safety violations more than 60 times since 2010. More recently, coal company Westmoreland was at fault over the recent Rosebud mine fatality in 2017 for not ensuring that the mine’s truck drivers safely dumped their loads. This oversight caused veteran miner Michael Ramsey his life.
While it is generally true that mining deaths have decreased greatly in the last 50 years, MSHA has attributed lower recent numbers during that time to fewer coal mining jobs and tougher enforcement of mining safety rules. Of course, as the number of coal miners at work decreases so follows the number of fatalities will also decrease.
However, from 2016 to 2017, the number of deaths doubled. This is more than troubling, especially because during the same year, fatalities in non-coal mines were at a rock-bottom low.
Even more worrisome, 2016-2017 brought only a modest rise in coal production – about 6.4% according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Such a small increase in production should not have accounted for such a sharp increase in worker fatalities.
Similarly, the coal mine workforce increased from 50,300 when Trump took office, to 51,900 in October of 2017, about a 3 percent increase. Again, such an increase should not have doubled the percentage of fatalities – that’s a 100% increase in fatalities for a 3% increase in miners. To put it bluntly, these numbers are not normal.
In our opinion, one miner fatality is one too many – our electricity should not cost people their lives.
We set out to get to the bottom of what happened in 2017 that would cause such a deadly year (see the full data here). Read further and see the details of what we found.
We gathered data for the 50 mines reporting the highest production rates in 2015 and 2016 and surveyed the total number of violations for each large mine, as assessed by MSHA. These mines are located all over the country, not just in the Western United States where the majority of our coal comes from.
The highest violations occurred at Marion County Mine in West Virginia, owned by Murray Energy, with a whopping 870 violations. Unsurprisingly, this mine also had the highest “significant and substantial” violations, clocking in at 165 violations in 2017.
Remember, these significant and substantial violations indicate that injury or illness will occur if not mitigated. To put a point on this – Marion County Mine had unsafe conditions which should have caused injury or illness to its workers almost half the days of the year in 2017.
As noted above, across the board, these large mines committed violations of safety and health laws every hour. There is certainly no other industry that would allow this kind of appalling abuses to continue without a major internal overhaul. In 2017 alone, for every 51 million tons of coal produced, a miner was killed.
As you may glean from the above chart, while the number of citations issued in 2017 was higher than 2016, the dollar amount assessed was lower.
Under Trump’s Administration, MSHA’s ability to issue citations has been reduced in an attempt to streamline and reduce regulations, and thus the ability to fine companies has also decreased. So companies are being issued more violations but aren’t being properly penalized for it.
To further the problem, like many of the federal agencies under Trump, MSHA did not have any senior leadership for the majority of 2017, rendering the agency without much direction or power (to boot, the Trump Administration appointed a retired coal executive to head the agency).
Last year, MSHA also instituted a new Compliance Assistance Program to replace MSHA inspections. Under this initiative, federal inspectors who conduct visits to coal mines are required to leave their credentials behind before entering a mine. This bars them from punishing the mine on the spot if they discover any safety violations. This allows mines some reprieve as they have time to mitigate their violations without penalty.
The Compliance Assistance Program even drew a rebuke from U.S. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a staunchly pro-coal state.
So, it seems that these mines are literally able to get away with murder. Lack of proper punishment, lack of appropriate oversight, and deregulation allows corporate owners to privatize the profits and socialize the costs which here, puts workers’ lives at risk.
The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, requires MSHA inspectors to issue a citation or order for each violation of a health or safety standard they observe.
Each issuance entails a civil penalty, generally ranging from $112 to $70,000 per violation. To add a bit more context, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 or “MINER” Act requires operators of underground coal mines to improve accident preparedness. The law also established a maximum $242,000 penalty for “flagrant” violations, a minimum $5,000 for flagrant violations, and maximum $65,000 penalty for failure to notify MSHA within 15 minutes of fatal or certain life-threatening events. But most violations do not garner such high penalties.
MSHA’s Office of Assessments proposes the penalties, based on the company’s prior history of violations, size of the operations, negligence, the gravity of the violations, and any mitigation the company has taken. Violations that are not reasonably likely to cause a serious injury or illness and which are promptly corrected are often assessed the minimum $112 penalty (for perspective, my speeding ticket last year was double that). Over half of the non-significant-and-substantial citations receive the minimum proposed penalty.
In 2017, 774 million tons of coal was extracted from the earth, garnering 46,896 citations, 22% of which were considered “significant and substantial”. The below table illustrates the worst of the worst violators.
In total, only $24 million was assessed to these mines in 2017.
Just to illustrate how crazy this is, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average grocery bill for a family of four in the United States in 2017 was $1,051 per month or $12,621 for the year. Coal mines were fined an average of $19,867 in violations (distributed evenly between the 1,208 mines in operation that year). Put simply, for risking worker’s lives, coal companies were slapped on the wrist with fines of only a few more thousand dollars than what it would cost to buy a family groceries for a year.
If that doesn’t sound ridiculous, consider what coal companies are grossing annually – in 2017, revenues for the top three companies with the highest violations reached into the billions of dollars: Alliance Resource Partners topped out at $1.80 billion, Consol Energy had revenues of approximately $1.41 Billion, and Murray Energy, the worst violator with over 3,000 violations between its mines had estimated 2014 earnings of $3.6 billion.
(For the sake of clarity, Murray Energy does not release its earnings regularly as it is the largest privately-held coal company in the United States. This estimated figure was released during the 2017 defamation suit between Bob Murray, owner of Murray Energy, and John Oliver, host of “Last Week, Tonight”).
We did a simple calculation to illustrate that these fines are just a drop in the bucket compared to the earnings these major companies are raking in:
Total fines assessed for 2017 were $24 million. Averaged out over the 46,896 total violations, that brings an average violation fine to $511.77.
Now, we understand that some violations are higher or lower than that, but this is the average. We took that average fine, multiplied it by the number violations the company had per year and calculated what percentage the total fines were of the company’s revenue for that year. What we found was striking. Even the worst offenders – Alliance Resource Partners, Consol Energy, and Murray Energy — were fined to the tune of only .02% – .04% for repeatedly endangering workers’ lives.
To be fair, this is just an illustration, because exact numbers for individual fine amounts in 2017 have not been released yet, but the gravity of what this model represents is that coal companies are making billions of dollars and only paying pennies when they violate a safety or health law.
To them, this is just the cost of doing business and seem happy to continue to violate the law and cut corners if it means more distributed dividends for investors or higher profit margins. Think about my speeding ticket from last year – if I were making billions of dollars and only assessed the minimum $112, I’m going to keep speeding.
Even worse, many of these companies end up in delinquency, with unpaid fines and dangerous conditions that have not been mitigated. So even when they are fined, they don’t even pay!
Even when companies are fined they continue to mine coal and reap millions of dollars in revenue while their fines remained unpaid and kick the fine down the road. As NPR uncovered in 2014, nearly $70 million in health and safety penalties had yet to be paid by mining company owners.
Sometimes these companies settle, but even when they do, just 13 percent of outstanding fines were paid as of the date of the 2014 investigation ($783,000 out of $5.8 million). That same investigation found that mines that don’t pay their penalties are significantly more dangerous than mines that do pay, with injury rates up to 50 percent higher. Specifically, delinquent mines reported nearly 4,000 injuries in the years that they failed to pay their fines while continuing to break the law. For these mines, the threat of punishment is ineffective against their greed for production, and the folks who get hurt are unfortunately the average workers.
Currently, there is no released data specific to the United States, but global numbers are available to demonstrate renewable-workers fatalities at wind farms.
In 2016, there were six wind-energy-related deaths globally. In 2015, there were 7 workers were killed while operating wind-energy related machinery. In 2014, there were only two deaths from the wind industry, globally.
These numbers also include the unfortunate deaths of bus drivers and a passenger whose vehicle crashed while traveling to a work site. It must be noted that 2016 saw enormous growth in the renewable sector, growing capacity and employing more workers than ever before, with more potential for injury and fatality. Workers in the solar industry, for example, can be exposed to electric shocks, falls, and other electricity-based harms. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) enacts standards to implement the safe work practices as required by statute.
Again, while any death is tragic, it seems that the renewable industry may be taking care of their workers, through OSHA, more successfully.
This is supported by the 2009 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association; in researching occupational health risks in renewables and fossil fuel industries, they found less risk of injury and death in wind and solar than in fossil fuel jobs. Not only do renewable energy sources deliver healthier, more sustainable energy, they do so under the protection of strong policies and oversight, allowing their workers to return home to their families each night.
Trump’s 2016 campaign promised that he would return coal miners back to work by removing regulations and making it easier to develop fossil fuels. This administration has time and time again made it as easy as possible for fossil fuels to be extracted, and workers safety, it seems, just stands in the way of this energy development. Trump continues to push policies that put miners at risk.
For example, he even went so far as to ask the Labor Department to revisit a 3-year-old rule from the Obama Administration meant to reduce exposure to coal dust that causes black lung disease.
Further, under Trump, MSHA proposed changing language about when safety inspections must be done at mines, allowing mine owners to start a shift before inspection occurs, putting miners at risk without oversight.
These policies and unfettered violations show that when Trump says he wants to safeguard coal miners, he actually just wants to safeguard coal companies’ profits.
We are on high-alert with this administration as it relates to workers’ lives. Trump may “dig coal”, but his policies are also digging graves. Based on what we have discovered, it is all the more clear that renewable energy is the future for both American consumers and American workers. Wind and solar jobs answer the call for well-paid technical jobs that are far less dangerous than coal mining. WildEarth Guardians will continue to push for the transition away from dirty and dangerous fossil fuels.