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Federal safety officials say they do not have data on COVID-19 cases in US mines

U.S. mine safety officials said they could not identify mines closed for COVID-19 related causes nor offer figures on the number of cases of the disease reported by mine employees.

U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson Laura McGinnis said the agency does not actively collect data on the reasons for mine status changes and does not have access to comprehensive data on COVID-19 cases reported by mining employees. However, there have been multiple cases in the U.S. of miners testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

McGinnis did say that if a mine operator alerts the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to changes in production, the agency would "to the extent possible, limit the number of inspectors sent to that mine for a regular inspection proportional with the mine's continuing operations."

"MSHA is committed to protecting the health and safety of America's miners, and we will continue to perform our essential functions, including mandatory inspections, serious accident investigations, and investigations of hazard complaints (imminent danger or serious in nature)," McGinnis wrote in an email.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

The United Mine Workers of America, or UMWA, said it is tracking cases at mines with union-represented employees. There were three positive tests at Peabody Energy Corp.'s Shoal Creek coal mine and two more at Warrior Met Coal Inc.'s No. 7 mine as of April 8, according to Phil Smith, the union's director of communications and governmental affairs.

Both metallurgical coal mines are in Alabama, and incidences of the disease had not been reported in news releases or securities filings by either company as of April 8. A Warrior spokesperson declined to comment.

Julie Gates, Peabody's vice president of investor relations and communications, said the company expects some of its employees to be among those affected as community-spread cases continue to rise, as is the case at Shoal Creek.

"We have site management plans in place to handle those instances where one of our team members tests positive for COVID-19 and will continue to communicate with employees to make them aware of changing circumstances," Gates said in an email. "Self-isolation of co-workers who have been in close contact is required."

Gates said Peabody is taking precautions including temperature and health checks, enhanced cleaning and sterilization processes, expanded use of personal protective equipment and social distancing procedures.

"Our primary focus is on the health and safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate," Gates said. She did not respond to questions about cases of the coronavirus at other Peabody operations or if production at Shoal Creek was affected after positive cases were identified among miners.

"They have periodically halted production and gone through the mine disinfecting working areas, break areas and equipment," Smith said of the two Alabama operations. "Those who worked on crews with the positives have been quarantined."

Consol Energy Inc. reported March 30 that two miners from the company's Bailey coal mine at its Pennsylvania complex tested positive for COVID-19. The company idled the mine, one of three at the site, but a company spokesperson did not respond to an April 9 request for an update on operations.

National Mining Association representative Conor Bernstein said the organization is regularly hosting member discussions to share COVID-19 protocols and best practices going beyond general government regulations.

"Just like every other essential industry that continues to work to provide invaluable resources for our country throughout this crisis, we are working to adjust to these unprecedented times that present challenges never before encountered," Bernstein wrote in an April 8 email.

Smith said the UMWA is working with companies with union-represented employees to implement protective measures. However, the union has not seen an enforceable standard for all mines that it publicly requested of MSHA in a March 24 letter to Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David Zatazelo. That leaves action up to individual companies or mines, which Smith called a "recipe for disaster."

MSHA has taken "zero action" apart from posting a website of suggestions drawn from materials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Smith added. The site includes a list of some actions MSHA is taking, such as suspending training exercises that involve gatherings.

"All miners, whether they be coal miners or metal/nonmetal miners and whether or not they are in a union, deserve to know that there is a standard for their safety and health that their employers will be held accountable to," Smith said. "That is not the case now. Their government is failing them."

Joseph Main, former assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health under President Barack Obama, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that when a company idles a mine, MSHA will continue to inspect it with people still working at the site. Operators generally notify MSHA of the reasons and lengths of any suspensions, so field offices would usually know why a company idled a mine.

"With regard to the coronavirus, this is a unique time. I would think MSHA would want to know if a mine has experienced the virus so MSHA could assure the health of agency employees and miners, particularly if a mine was closed for that reason," Main said. "In short, MSHA headquarters could collect info on idling of mines through the general information from MSHA districts if they wanted to."