The U.S. Labor Department issued record fines of almost $5 million against operators of nearly half the nation's coal mines yesterday, charging widespread tampering with the coal dust-sampling devices that are designed to protect miners from black lung disease.
In a 20-month investigation, the agency said it found 4,710 silver-dollar-size sampling filters that were tampered with at 847 mining operations, including four in Maryland.
"I am appalled at the flagrant disregard for a law designed to protect coal miners against disabling lung disease," Labor Secretary Lynn Martin said. "Altering test results could place lives in jeopardy."
The department is pursuing 17 separate criminal investigations of dust-sample tampering in addition to the civil penalties of $1,000 per violation that were announced yesterday, an official said.
The nation's largest coal producer, Peabody Coal Co., paid a $500,000 criminal penalty in federal court in January for tampering violations. That case led to the investigation of 120,000 sampling devices that were submitted for bimonthly testing by other U.S. mining operations.
Secretary Martin said she was worried by "the broad nature of the violations," including instances where there was tampering even when it was apparently not necessary to meet the standard.
"It seems almost an addiction to cheat at some mines," she said.
The airborne dust samples are collected by mine operators and sent to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration for processing to determine if they violate the health standards set to protect mine employees from black lung and silicosis.
An air pump connected to a filter device is usually worn by a mine worker as he does his job. Typically, violators attempted to blow out the offending dust from the filter by reversing the pump's air flow, Ms. Martin said. A clean white filter center surrounded by a dirty border was a telltale sign of tampering, she said.
The department's action drew calls from both the miners union and the coal operators to revamp the 22-year-old testing program.
"This is a program that is so structurally flawed, no amount of enforcement can correct it," charged Richard L. Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers of America. He proposed that the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration and the coal miners conduct the sampling, instead of leaving it to the mine owners, and he urged the use of improved technology to reduce coal dust on the job.
The National Coal Association said its members have asked the MSHA for more than a year to investigate the entire program, including the equipment, sampling techniques and the responsibilities of operators.
"We frankly can't believe that this is tampering; there has to be some other kind of reasons involved," said Richard L. Lawson, the trade group's president.
Labor Department officials said they could not assess the effects of the tampering on miners' health.
"There's no realistic way to quantify the health impact," said Edward Hugler, deputy administrator for coal mine safety and health. Black lung disease develops over 15 or 20 years' exposure, he noted, so there is "probably not a significant health impact" from a short period of tampering.
Mr. Hugler also said that inspectors would have detected widespread tampering earlier had it gone on for a number of years. "We probably caught it early in the game," he said.
The aggregate fine is the largest ever issued by the U.S. mine safety and health program, he noted. Last year, after looking at 92,000 samples, the MSHA issued 1,079 citations for exceeding the dust standard and levied $137,780 in fines.
Three of the four Maryland operations cited for alleged sample tampering are surface facilities: two coal loading tipples and a strip mine. The Mettiki mine in Garrett County, the only operating deep coal mine in Maryland, was also cited. None of the companies responded to telephone requests for comment.