LEXINGTON, Ky. (FOX 56) — An eastern Kentucky coal company has been sentenced for violating safety regulations that protected underground miners from black lung disease.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Black Diamond Coal Company, LLC and Walter Perkins, a certified dust examiner, were sentenced on Thursday for violating Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) regulations requiring accurate respirable coal-dust-sampling in underground coal mines. Black Diamond was sentenced for submitting false samples and Perkins was sentenced for lying to MSHA special investigators.
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According to court documents, on Oct. 6 and 7, 2020, Black Diamond Coal submitted sampling results to MSHA that were abnormally low and led to inquiries from the MSHA Barbourville District Office.
On Oct. 8, 2020, inspectors and investigators visited Black Diamond Number 1 mine in Floyd County. Where they found the company’s continuous personal dust monitor (CPDM) running on the surface, in a first aid trailer. According to MSHA, the CPDM should be worn by a miner underground, as they worked their regular shift, to accurately sample the coal dust underground.
“The purpose of these safety regulations is to prevent a progressive and irreversible disease,” said Carlton S. Shier, IV, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky. “If employers falsify the dust sampling, not only are they are violating the law they are dramatically reducing the safety of their employees. That is simply unacceptable, and compelled us to prosecute this case.”
Coal dust causes pneumoconiosis or black lung disease. Black lung is a progressive and irreversible disease leading to lung failure and death, according to the American Lung Association. However, it is preventable, by reducing the levels of respirable coal dust miners are exposed to while in the mines.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said a forensic analysis of the CPDM showed the monitor had not moved in days, despite Black Diamond submitting dust samples claiming it was conducting its required sampling underground.
Perkins, 45, was employed by Black Diamond and was certified by MSHA as a dust examiner. As part of his certification, he was trained by MSHA on how to conduct the required dust-sampling properly. When confronted with the CPDM running in the first aid trailer, Perkins claimed that he had given the CPDM to a miner operating the continuous mining machine, but the operator had returned it to him stating that the CPDM had stopped working because of a fault. That was false and Perkins later admitted that he never gave the CPDM to the miner operator and the device never experienced a fault.
“Enforcement of mandatory health standards is a top priority for me and this Administration,” said Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Chris Williamson. “The Mine Safety and Health Administration can only protect miners from the risk of developing black lung disease if it has accurate sampling results. Given the troubling spike in black lung cases in Appalachia, we must hold accountable those who choose not to comply with the law and put miners’ health and lives at risk.”
“Mine operators bear the responsibility for the safety and health of the miners they employ, and when operators avoid their legal obligation, the U.S. Department of Labor will use its enforcement powers to hold them accountable,” said Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda. “We thank the United States Attorney’s Office for partnering with us to enforce critical health regulations designed to prevent black lung.”
Black Diamond was sentenced to pay a fine of $200,000 and to two years of probation. Further, because there is no immediate way of knowing whether any miners may develop black lung because of dust overexposure, Black Diamond was ordered to pay restitution of $400 to any miner who is no longer employed in the mining industry — meaning they no longer have access to free black lung screenings — to obtain their own screenings.
The attorney’s office said restitution for miners exposed to unknown dust levels, after a company falsified the dust sampling, is the first of its kind.
Perkins, from Harlan County, was sentenced to 6 months in prison and 6 months in home detention, followed by one year of supervised release to follow.