Two unions have filed suit against the Trump administration, seeking better COVID-19 protections for miners – at a time when many are returning to work.
The United Mine Workers of America and the United Steelworkers submitted the suit Tuesday, saying the coronavirus poses a “grave danger” to miners, who often work near one another where air is circulated. The unions, collectively, represent thousands of coal and metals miners, including about 1,000 UMWA members in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Their petition, according to a joint news release from the unions, calls for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration “to issue an emergency temporary standard protecting miners from infectious diseases.” MSHA is an agency within the Department of Labor.
On May 14, eight U.S. senators introduced legislation requiring MSHA to implement emergency standards. Four of those senators are from coal states: Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Cecil E. Roberts, international president of the Virginia-based UMWA, said in a statement related to the suit: “We have been asking MSHA to step up and do its job to protect America’s miners from the beginning of this pandemic. But so far, the agency has refused. You would think that those who are charged with keeping miners safe would want to actually do so.
“Working in a mine is very different from working in any other workplace. The air is circulated throughout the mine, meaning an airborne disease like COVID-19 can spread among workers who are far removed from one another. A six-foot social distance is meaningless in an underground environment.”
Tom Conway, international president of the Pittsburgh-based USW, added: “It’s time for our federal agencies to start taking their responsibilities to workers seriously. We needed an emergency temporary standard for infectious diseases at the beginning of the pandemic, and we still need one now.”
The first COVID-19 outbreak among miners, the unions said in the petition, occurred in late March at Consol Energy’s Bailey Mine complex, when two coal workers tested positive for the virus. Consol closed Bailey for two weeks beginning March 30, temporarily idling 500 employees.
Bailey is part of the Pennsylvania Mining Complex, the largest underground coal mine complex in North America, which includes the Enlow Fork and Harvey mines. About two-thirds of the complex is located in Washington and Greene counties, the rest in Marshall County, W.Va.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf did shut down mines for a brief time, but has largely allowed them to operate during the pandemic as a “life-sustaining” industry.
Virginia-based UMWA represents 1,000 workers in Southwestern Pennsylvania. About half – 450 – are employed at Contura Energy’s Cumberland Mine outside Waynesburg. The USW has about 13,000 members who mine and process minerals, including copper, iron ore, silver and limestone.
Cecil Township-based Consol Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.