Health Impacts on Prep Plant Workers From Coal Cleaning Chemicals


Route 3 cuts through the heart of southern West Virginia coal country, but from the road, you might not even know it. Much of the surface mining is above your head, along the ridges of the Appalachian mountains that flank the road. You’re not likely to spot the entrance to an underground mine, either, though there’s one sure way to tell a mine is nearby: the towering metal structures of coal preparation plants punctuate the landscape. Stilted conveyer belts pass over the road, carrying coal from the mines. Once the coal arrives at these plants, it’s treated with chemicals to remove impurities and prepared for sale.

Part of a coal preparation plant, seen from West Virginia’s Route 3. Photo credit: Erin L. McCoy.

The dangers faced by coal miners have been well-documented—black lung disease, for example, was identified decades ago. But about 15.3 percent of workers in the mining industry—an estimated 10,500 people—are employed not in mines but in preparation plants, mill operations or breakers nationwide, and evidence suggests that these prep plants pose their own dangers for those working inside.

A variety of chemicals are used in these prep plants on a daily basis, many of them to purify coal. MCHM (4-methyl-cyclohexanemethanol), the chemical that left almost 300,000 West Virginians without safe drinking water after a spill in January, is one of these chemicals. Hundreds of people sought hospital treatment after MCHM exposure during that crisis, and at least 20 were admitted. But what are the dangers for coal preparation plant workers who are exposed to higher concentrations of these chemicals on a regular basis for the span of a career?

As with MCHM, the answer proves to be nebulous. For many of these chemicals, complete information on their potential health effects isn’t available, and long-term effects are even more difficult to establish. One workers’ rights organization, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), has been seeking updated regulations regarding chemical safety standards and reporting for years.

Alfred Ray Price is one of many former preparation plant workers who believe their health problems can be directly linked to their time spent around chemicals. Price worked in the coal industry for 28 years, including 19 at the Montcoal #7 Prep Plant in Raleigh County, WV. He remembers spraying coal cars with antifreeze in the wintertime to keep the coal from sticking—32 gallons per car—while standing on a catwalk above.

“Have you ever sprayed a water hose in a bucket, and get all the mist up from it?” Price asked. “By the time I would get through spraying the cars, I would be soaking wet with it. Actually, it would be running down my throat. It was a real sweet taste.”

Price had to stop working because of health problems at age 47. He said PET scans of his brain pointed to cognitive disorders, including short-term memory loss. He later became involved in one of two class-action lawsuits in Marshall County, WV, in which about two dozen plaintiffs claimed similar chemical exposure and health problems. Many of those plaintiffs also claimed they spent years working around chemicals without being warned they could be dangerous.

One suit was settled last year, and the other was dismissed. The settlement provides for a one-time health exam for prep plant workers—but specifies that these exams aren’t intended to determine whether any health problems may have been caused by the chemicals in question. Thomas F. Basile, attorney to several of the plaintiffs, is attempting to reinstate some of the claims in these cases, and says he’s considering an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Price and some other plaintiffs aren’t satisfied with the results, but the lawsuits did achieve one thing: they placed on public record a great deal of evidence, and some testimony, regarding chemicals at coal prep plants.

One plaintiff, Franklin Stump, told a judge that inhalation of and skin contact with chemicals was a regular occurrence at the Montcoal #7 plant, where he worked for 27 years. Much of this exposure happened during the “frothing” process, in which fuel oil and a variety of chemicals are mixed with water to create a bubbling liquid that separates fine coal particles from other materials.

“I’ve unloaded the trucks with the bags [of chemicals] in it over my shoulder, carried them up the steps, dumped them in the funnels, and it all come[s] back in your face,” Stump said, according to a court transcript. “And I’ve seen pipes bust and the stuff go all over the walls and all over your face, and I’ve waded, like I said, up to my knees.”

Price and other workers mostly spoke from their experiences in the 1990s and earlier. Phil Smith, director of communications at the UMWA, points out that at today’s newer prep plants, many processes are automated to prevent workers from mixing chemicals directly into vats of frother, thereby reducing their exposure. But workers are still exposed to these chemicals sometimes, Smith added.

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