On the evening of May 31, 2015, Glen Campbell started his shift in Peabody’s Gateway mine in Coulterville, Ill., much as he always had: driving a vehicle called a mantrip through the mine to check on things before the “owl” shift started.
About an hour later, as the shuttle sped deeper into the mine about 45 miles south of St. Louis, Campbell collided with a coal rib, or pillar. An autopsy would later show fatal blunt trauma to his head, chest and abdomen.
Campbell’s son Brad can picture it all too well, based on the federal investigation and past comments from his father and a miner who worked with him. Brad thinks dim light and dust made it hard to see through the windshield. He pictures his father going too fast and leaning out of the vehicle for a better view before his head and then torso hit the coal rib and snapped back.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that Peabody failed to maintain the mantrip in safe condition and did not have effective policies in place to protect miners. It cited problems with the brake pedal, the removal of a safety chain along the driver’s side opening and the removal of a spacer that would have limited the vehicle’s speed to 20 mph.
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An Energy News Network review of two decades’ worth of federal records reveals that the accident that killed Campbell was typical of modern-day coal mine fatalities: When people die in Illinois coal mines, faulty equipment and a lack of safety policies, programs, procedures or controls are the most common causes cited by investigators.
The conclusion that better safety policies or equipment upkeep might have prevented more than half of the state’s 16 coal mining fatalities since 2000 leaves families grappling with what-if questions for years.
“When I think about the equipment he was driving and how unsafe it was, it just makes me sick to my stomach,” Brad Campbell said about his father. “Because it was avoidable. To lose a life, to affect a whole family because somebody took a shortcut or because someone didn’t want to pay to order this part ... is just crazy.”
Charlene Murdock, a spokesperson for St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, said mining companies prioritize safety and that it is in their best financial interest to do so to avoid shutdowns or have productivity reduced by accidents.
“Our company is deeply affected by any fatality and takes every measure to investigate causes and subsequent measures that can be taken to prevent such occurrences from happening again,” Murdock said.
While employment and production in the coal industry have declined precipitously in recent decades, coal mining is still a bedrock of the economy and culture in swaths of Illinois. Illinois was the country’s fourth-largest coal-producing state in 2019, and Illinois’ relatively cheap-to-extract coal deposits have helped the industry remain more competitive than in other states. About 2,700 people work in coal mining in Illinois currently, not counting significant employment in industries that serve mines. In parts of the state, many people count multiple miners going back generations among their families.
Coal mining has become exponentially safer over the years. In the first half of the 20th century, more than a thousand coal miners died in mines each year; in 2020, only five perished nationwide. Fatalities are down proportionally even considering that far fewer people work in mining today: In 1940, there were 2.6 deaths per 1,000 coal miners employed nationwide; in 2020, there were 0.08 deaths per thousand.
But coal mining is still an inherently dangerous profession. Retired miners and family members interviewed for this story all recounted frequent injuries, many of them serious, and close calls.
Federal records show hundreds of injuries reported in Illinois mines each year, including miners hit by falling rock and coal, mud obscuring buried hazards, fingers or arms caught in machinery, backs injured while lifting heavy loads, and other mishaps.
Deaths happen most often because of inadequate maintenance, training and protocols, federal records show. Meanwhile, experts say federal inspections and enforcement of safety laws are not rigorous enough — and monetary penalties are too low — to incentivize companies to aggressively maintain a safe environment.
The Energy News Network reviewed federal fatality reports for all 16 deaths in Illinois coal mines over the past 13 years. Faulty equipment or a lack of safety protocols were main factors cited in all of them. Federal investigators cited faulty equipment and insufficient maintenance in five of the 16 fatalities. A lack of safety procedures or policies was noted in 14 of the fatalities. In three, federal investigators noted that mines failed to enforce their own stated safety precautions.
In some cases, companies were cited for conditions similar to those they had previously been warned about by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
On Dec. 8, 2015, inside Foresight Energy’s MC-1 — or “Sugar Camp” — mine about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis, 20-year-old Tyler Rath was driving a tractor pulling a trailer loaded with heavy chain down a wet, steep slope. He was unable to make the left turn at the bottom and collided with the coal rib, causing the trailer connection to break and the trailer to ram into his vehicle. Rath was killed, his wife and two young children left without him just before Christmas. The Mine Safety and Health Administration found that both faulty equipment and improper training were to blame for the accident.
The company had not kept the diesel tractor or the slope haulage road in safe condition, MSHA said, and the equipment wasn’t the grade required to operate on such a slope. The road was slippery because it was wet from leaks in a nearby water line, and tire treads were worn on the tractor — interfering with steering and traction — the agency found. MSHA determined that six other miners had previously experienced or heard about machines slipping on the slope.
It noted that a similar accident to Rath’s had happened in May 2013, when a miner broke his leg. At that time the company was required to come up with a safety plan to avoid future such accidents, including a requirement that extra tractors should be used to facilitate braking — a measure Rath failed to take. But in interviews after Rath’s death, MSHA found miners were unaware of this safety plan.
On Nov. 4, 2013, at the same mine — Illinois’s largest, about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis — Dallas Travelstead was shoveling coal and loose rock on the “pan line,” where massive machines cut rock and coal from the face. As he was working, a 1-ton piece of rock and coal fell, pinning him.
Such roof falls also happened in the mine in 2011 and 2012, MSHA noted, and the agency found that the company didn’t have adequate policies, programs, procedures or controls in place to protect miners from roof falls.
In May 2014, roof bolter William-Daniel Hans Payne, 25, was working in the MC-1 mine when he was fatally pinned between a coal rib and a roof bolting machine driven by another miner. MSHA found that miners had previously reported the roof bolting machine had a tendency to drift to the right when it was supposed to be going straight, and that the right “crawler” on the machine needed adjustment. The agency also noted that a hydraulic control valve had been tied in place with a nylon rope, making it hard to control. And it found that the company had not provided adequate training to Payne, who had two years’ experience, nor the miner driving the machine, who had four years’ experience.
A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Payne’s widow, Terra Payne, argues that LLCs and other entities affiliated with Foresight Energy failed to inspect and maintain the roof-bolting machine, including by failing to address the issues cited by MSHA. The lawsuit also alleges the defendants failed to train miners to operate the machine and to care for an injured miner, which “deprived the injured miner of his best chance to survive.”
Lack of accountability
Critics say the patterns of poorly maintained equipment and inadequate training are allowed to persist in part because penalties for disregarding safety are too low to discourage companies from making it an urgent priority.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration inspects mines four times a year and also does inspections in response to complaints and serious accidents and deaths. The agency logs violations — thousands at Illinois mines each year — and issues fines that typically range from several hundred or several thousand dollars per violation to $69,400 fines often issued in relation to fatalities.
But these fines are tiny for mining companies that report annual revenue in the hundreds of millions or billions. And the fines are regularly reduced through appeals. The $239,000 that Foresight ultimately paid in relation to Rath’s death would, in comparison to Foresight’s 2019 reported revenue of $834 million, be like a $14 fine for someone who earns $50,000 a year.
And experts note there is no way for federal inspectors to look at all possible safety risks in a mine.
“Do inspectors examine every piece of equipment? Not usually,” said Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer who has filed successful lawsuits in major mine accidents including the 2006 Aracoma Alma mine fire and the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, both at Massey Energy mines in West Virginia. “It’s not like an automobile inspection where someone goes in and pops the hood and does a systems check — they don’t have the manpower or training necessarily to go into that level of detail.”
That means it falls on miners to report safety risks. Current and former miners told the Energy News Network they have reasons not to report problems or hazards if it will mean slowing or shutting down production because that could mean losing bonuses for meeting production goals or for going days without reportable accidents. Especially as coal plants and coal mines are closing nationwide, employees worry about keeping mines competitive and open — so they can keep their jobs.
Labor unions — namely the United Mine Workers of America — used to play a role in monitoring and advocating for safety in Illinois coal mines. But there are no labor unions representing miners in Illinois today, and many mines rely heavily on temporary contractors with little job security. This means workers are more reluctant to report safety risks or injuries, experts and miners say, because they fear rocking the boat could cause them to lose jobs that are among the most desirable in an economically stressed region.
A retired longtime Illinois coal miner, who asked his name not be used for fear of alienating former colleagues, said that miners felt much freer to report safety problems — including to federal inspectors — when they were represented by a union.
“If the inspector comes by in a nonunion mine, no individual has a chance to have a one-on-one with the inspector, they always have to watch what they say and a lot of things get lost in translation,” said the miner, who worked in union and non-union mines between 1970 and 2004. “You could proclaim, ‘I refuse to do this job because of my individual safety rights,’ but when you’re working nonunion, there’s no contract, everybody is an employee at will, there’s nobody to really make them toe the line as far as safety is concerned.”
Another retired miner who worked in several different mines over 25 years — retiring in 2014 — said safety deteriorated as pressure to work faster and produce more increased in the 2000s, and unions weren’t there to demand safeguards. He and other experts said the shift to non-union mines and the increasing use of contractors has also meant miners are younger and have less experience.
“I hate to see where things have gone,” said the retired miner, who didn’t want his name used because he has family members working in the industry and feared retaliation from coal companies.
In the early days, he said, “it was a proud occupation. You had old guys, young guys, middle-aged guys, they took you under their wing and they showed you how to do things the right way. It’s not that way now. You can’t make an industry faster-paced with people with less experience, without some ramifications. At a union mine, a face boss wouldn’t ever ask you to do some of the things non-union bosses are telling you to do.”
Some fear companies are likely to further give short shrift to preventative maintenance and safety as the industry increasingly struggles to stay afloat, with coal-fired power facing competition from cheaper gas and renewables, not to mention the economic impact of the pandemic.
“Any time you’re in any adverse economics, the tendency is to put off the things that will slow you down and to cut corners,” said Davitt McAteer, who was head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton. “I think we are facing a long haul in terms of safety and health in the mines because of the growing economic pressure.”
Mining industry leaders say safety is a top priority, and that it is in their economic best interest to run a safe mine. However, human error is also inevitable, they said.
“I think our industry is probably the most inspected and regulated in terms of safety issues of any industry out there,” Phillip Gonet, former president of the Illinois Coal Association industry group, said. “Industry (measures) and regulations have been put in place to further protect the worker, but it all comes down to (this): We have human beings operating machines and sometimes they make mistakes.”
Foresight Energy, Murray Energy and other mining companies contacted for this story declined to comment. Peabody’s spokesperson said that after Glen Campbell’s death, the company took measures to avoid any similar occurrences, including instituting a speed limit of 20 mph on vehicles underground, installing solid doors on vehicles and reiterating a long-standing policy on seatbelt use.
“Equipment at Peabody mines is to be inspected by its operator before each shift and policy requires that any deficiencies be fixed before the equipment should be used during that shift,” Murdock said.
Moving forward Joseph Main, who started mining in 1967 at age 18, took on the top job at the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration. In 2010, he launched a program to identify and target mines with “outrageous records” of violations, and otherwise beefed up MSHA’s monitoring and enforcement, leading to “the safest seven or eight years” in mining history, as he described it.
Main thinks the Obama years showed that federal policy can improve mine safety. The country’s biggest gains in mine safety have come through legislation — namely the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which led to MSHA’s founding in 1977. But meaningful changes could today come without legislation through granular policy changes made within the agency.
MSHA officials in a statement for this story touted one such change: a program launched in March 2018 to ensure the continuous mining machines used for the long-wall mining method common in Illinois are equipped with systems to automatically stop if a miner is nearby. That might have prevented three deaths in recent years in which miners were pinned by continuous mining machines operated by remote control.
Much higher fines for violations could have more of an impact, some say. And Lee S. Friedman, a University of Illinois at Chicago associate professor who has extensively studied coal mine safety, would like to see the fines paid for violations invested directly into coal mine safety initiatives, rather than going into general federal coffers.
President Joe Biden named Main’s former chief of staff Jeannette Galanis, also a former AFL-CIO national deputy field director, as acting head of MSHA. Workers’ rights and safety advocates are hopeful that she or her successor will take initiative to make further policy changes in how the agency mandates and enforces safety standards.
While coal mines are federally regulated, there could also be ways for state legislation to help. For example, Teresa Lenich, whose son died in a one-car accident leaving an Illinois mine after an exhausting stretch of seven-day workweeks, is pushing for state legislation that would mandate miners receive one day off per week.
Nationwide, union officials, lawyers and other experts say a culture shift is needed, wherein companies and miners embrace regulation and oversight as a way to improve safety, rather than as a threat to the industry. In communities where coal has long been central to the economy, residents, miners and local officials often rally behind coal companies and worry about anything — like safety regulations and enforcement — that could increase mines’ costs, slow down production or cause them to shut down.
“If there is not a constant emphasis on making sure the mining standards are not undercut,” Main said, “the possibility is that they will be.”
The nonprofit news outlet Energy News Network provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.