As COVID-19 spreads, Virginia coal mines remain open

As COVID-19 spreads, Virginia coal mines remain open
An A&G Coal mine in Southwest Virginia, July 2019. (Source: Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Coal mining continues in Southwest Virginia even as workplace constraints prevent miners from following many of the social distancing practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Monday, all of Virginia’s coal and mineral mines that had been open before the appearance of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, were still operating, said Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy spokesperson Tarah Kesterson.

“We are very concerned that the appearance of coronavirus in a coal mine will rapidly spread,” said Phil Smith, the director of communications and government affairs for the United Mine Workers of America. But, he added, “it’s the nature of the work and the nature of how you get to the work that you’re going to be closer than six feet apart.”

As Gov. Ralph Northam tightens orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has led to six deaths and 38 hospitalizations so far in Virginia, businesses are increasingly being required to shut down or allow employees to telework.

But while other industries that remain open are implementing social distancing practices, the terrain of a coal mine often leaves little room for separation.

Workers at underground mines must take an elevator and then special vehicles such as mantrips to reach their worksites, all of which are confined and generally enclosed, said Smith. Once at their site, “they usually spread out a bit, but “then at the end of the shift they repeat that process,” he said.

“To a certain degree there’s only so much you can do in a coal mining atmosphere,” he said.

Kesterson said that many mining companies are doing extra cleaning and encouraging workers to follow social distancing whenever possible, while “some of the larger mines are staggering shifts to avoid having too many people together at once — especially upon entering the mine.”

Because COVID-19 impairs respiratory function, coal miners may be at elevated risk from the disease, especially in the Central Appalachian region, where the most severe form of black lung has been on the rise over the past decade.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.