As coal mines close due to COVID-19 concerns and lower demand for coal, federal mine safety officials say they are keeping a list of mines that notify the government that they are closing but are not sharing that information at this time.
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David Zatezalo said the agency does not require mine operators to tell them when they close specifically over concerns related to COVID-19. Operators often do tell them, because with U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors routinely visiting their operations, the agency is an affected party.
"I hate to say it, but it's almost every day somebody calls us and says we're shutting down for three weeks," Zatezalo said on an April 16 stakeholders' call that the agency hosts quarterly.
In response to a caller's question, Zatezalo said he thinks "there's pretty good transparency" around companies reporting employee cases of the virus because "we've had a number of mines that have shut down sections or shut down mines and sent people home because of that." He added that miners could call into an MSHA system that allows them to report safety concerns as well.
Previously, an MSHA spokeswoman told S&P Global Market Intelligence the agency "does not actively collect data on the reasons for mine status changes and cannot speculate on whether a given change is COVID-19 related." She added that the agency does not have comprehensive data on COVID-19 cases reported by miners.
"We are keeping a spreadsheet of those who notify us that they are closing," Zatezalo said. "There may be some that don't notify us. They're supposed to, but some of the smaller operators, in particular, don't always realize that they are supposed to."
United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said in a previously reported email that they were aware of miners testing positive for COVID-19 at two Alabama coal mines, one operated by Peabody Energy Corp. and another operated by Warrior Met Coal Inc. Consol Energy Inc. reported two positive cases of COVID-19 among employees at one of its Pennsylvania mines that was temporarily shut down, but Peabody and Warrior did not publicly announce positive cases at their operations where Smith said operations continued.
The UMWA criticized the agency for not issuing an enforceable standard for all mines that would ensure all companies are implementing safety precautions at their mine sites. The National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics wrote a March 31 letter calling for additional safeguards.
"As you are aware, miners frequently position themselves in close proximity to one another and share equipment in the course of their work duties," the letter states. "Due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, one miner with the infection can potentially spread the virus to many others. Not only do the resulting illnesses keep the infected miners from working, but they also put affected mines at risk for temporary closure to reduce further transmission of disease."
Another issue of potential concern raised during the stakeholder call is that MSHA inspectors travel from one mine to another. They could potentially spread the virus from employees at one mine to employees at another, but officials on the call said inspectors are taking precautions when traveling between mines.
With companies not volunteering the information to the public and the federal government refusing to share the information it has, it is difficult to know how widespread the virus could be in the nation's mines. UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said April 17 that the union had not received any additional reports of positive COVID-19 cases since the Alabama cases were reported. However, the UMWA currently represents a relatively small portion of the nation's mining workforce.
Zatezalo and an MSHA spokeswoman did not respond to emailed requests for the spreadsheet of mines reporting COVID-19 related closures. When asked on the stakeholder call whether the agency would share the document, Zatezalo said they would not yet.
"It's just formative," Zatezalo said. "It's not complete at this point in time."