Erica Stewart’s husband is a coal miner in West Virginia.  Every day he goes to work packed shoulder to shoulder with other miners with little precautions taken against the coronavirus. 

Stewart, a mother of six, is at increased risk of severe illness and death from the virus due to an autoimmune disorder.  Every time her husband goes to work, he must choose between providing for his family and protecting them from the virus.

“When he goes out that door and he goes to work and he’s exposed. He’s coming back and we’re exposed,”  said Stewart. “So I’m very scared. I am very concerned.”

When businesses around the country began shutting down earlier this spring, West Virginia’s coal mines stayed open, despite conditions that public health experts say put miners at a particularly high risk of infection. In West Virginia, the mining industry continues to have outsized political and cultural influence, even as coal’s economic impact has waned along with its diminishing importance as a primary American energy source. Many mining families that have depended on coal for their livelihood for generations are now struggling with the new dangers of a pandemic on top of the longtime risks of mining accidents and black lung disease. 

West Virginia’s coal industry is a microcosm of a debate that has played out across the country in recent months, as governments weigh the needs of vital — and politically powerful — businesses against the safety of their workers. Large essential businesses have posed a challenge to governments as outbreaks at multiple meat processing plants, factories, and even Amazon warehouses have highlighted the dangers of staying open. 

Once the backbone of the West Virginian economy, coal mining’s importance to the state has decreased as the U.S. has moved away from coal power and other industries became more important to the West Virginian economy. 

Yet since the beginning of West Virginia’s shelter-in-place orders, coal mining has been deemed essential and kept open. Gov. Jim Justice, who owns multiple mining companies and mines across the U.S., said in a March press conference “there’s no group, in my opinion, more essential than our miners.”

In the past 10 years, the consumption of energy from coal across the U.S. has fallen by nearly half, down to nearly 20% in 2019 according to data from the Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy, and it is likely to fall even more this year, said Brian Lego, research assistant professor at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research. 

As states across the U.S. start to relax restrictions, even as coronavirus cases grow by the tens of thousands of each day, the danger of additional outbreaks at large manufacturing and processing facilities increases.  

In West Virginia,  the coal mines, which employ thousands of miners who work in close proximity, have yet to see any major public outbreaks but that could change. 

Coal mines in other states have been shut down temporarily due to outbreaks in some of the mines said to Phil Smith, Director of Communications and Governmental Affairs at United Mine Workers of America, a labor union.

Sickness also spreads quickly in the mines, said Michael Sheppard, a coal mine surveyor who has worked in West Virginia mines daily since 2001.

“We pass things like crazy. I think last year I had the flu for like four months straight,” said Sheppard.

But coal mines pose significant logistical problems in protecting against the virus.

“A coal mine is not like a meatpacking and processing plant, where you have the assembly line kind of operations,”  said Michael McCawley, clinical associate professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health. “You can put up barriers between workers and you have some chance of either having social distancing or having barriers to simulate a social distancing. In a coal mine, the coal mine changes virtually every single day.”

For workers, keeping the mines open has also forced them to choose between earning a paycheck and protecting their families.

“It seems essential,”  said Stewart. “But right now my family seems more essential.”

And many miners choose to go work sick rather than face the possibility of losing their job. 

“We don’t call off sick,” said Sheppard, who works at three mines in northern West Virginia. “I mean some people do but they get fired. I mean you work every day. You do what’s got to be done every day, no matter what.”

In response to the virus, the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA), the federal regulatory body for the mining industry, published recommended guidelines around cleanliness and social distancing in the mines, but some miners and mine safety experts say some companies aren’t implementing the guidelines.   

Sheppard said nothing has really changed in his mines. 

The miners still congregate in common areas like the bathhouses, and they still eat together in the dining areas. The vehicles that carry workers into the mines, known as mantrips, are still packed, said Sheppard.

“You’re side by side, shoulder to shoulder,” said Sheppard. “Sometimes people got to sit on your lap. Four guys will be sitting there and one guy has to lay across them.”  

If the coal mining companies don’t start taking precautions, then West Virginia could start to see a high number of coronavirus cases coming out of the coal mines, said McCawley. 

The mines would be safer if they follow the guidelines put into place by MSHA and other public health experts. 

Social distancing needs to be enforced where possible, particularly, in dining halls and other areas miners tend to congregate and masks and respirators should be worn if possible, said McCawley.

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