A Poisoned Gold Miner’s Case

I just wrote up a one of those cases that can make your blood boil involving a miner named Matt Varady and his former employer Veris Gold.

Varady was continuously over-exposed to ammonia, and complained for three months about feeling sick. However, he was told that if he wanted to move out of his position, he would be fired.

He had a blood test, and ammonia levels in his blood were measured at “56,” when a normal range is 11 to 35. He was fired right after Veris Gold found out the results.

Veris gave three bogus reasons for firing him.

One reason was that he had two “infractions.” One “infraction was yelling at a co-worker when he thought he was being over-exposed to cyanide. The second “infraction” was for going outside of the chain of command with his health complaints. The during the trial, the company came up with a third reason: the miner made a comment on his private Facebook page about a supervisor sleeping on the job.

One of the people responsible for firing him is now in jail on unrelated charges of dumping mine waste on BLM land when he worked for the French Gulch mine, and good riddance I say. Hopefully he will never be employed by this industry again.

MSHA did not take his case, and the question lingering is, “why not?”

This miner has suffered with unemployment, trying to pay for health care and medical expenses during his fight. Had MSHA taken his case, he would have been entitled to his salary and benefits. Something is seriously wrong when MSHA investigators can’t seem to ask the right questions in a case such as this.

The good news is, he won his case and is entitled to back pay and health insurance payments. The bad news is Veris declared bankruptcy, although a gold mine and still in operation under the name of Jerritt Canyon, with the same employees and management.

This company was targeted for MSHA’s “pattern of violations,” so it was on someone’s radar at MSHA. Before bankruptcy status, it was up to $400,000 in delinquent penalties which the government never went after. It was found, time-and-time again, that Veris did not report accidents. What does it take? How many more “bells and whistles” does MSHA need?

And on the industry side, if the company wonders why it has a bad reputation, and wonders why its miners are distrustful, and wonders why people are frustrated with corporations, it need look no further than this poisoned gold miner’s case.

Black Lung Legislation Introduced

U.S. Representatives Matt Cartwright (PA-17), Bobby Scott (VA-03) and U.S. Senator Bob Casey (PA) just issued a release on proposed sweeping reforms to the federal program that provides benefits to coal miners suffering from black lung disease. Federal law requires that coal companies compensate miners with disabilities who contract black lung, which is caused by inhaling coal dust over an extended period of time, but coal companies routinely deploy an array of unfair tactics to avoid paying miners the benefits they deserve.

Joining them on the bill, entitled “Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015” was Senators Joe Manchin (WV), Sherrod Brown (OH) and Tim Kaine (VA), as well as Representative Frederica Wilson (FL-17).

“There is undeniable evidence that, as thousands of miners are being affected by black lung, coal company lawyers are determined to exploit loopholes preventing miners and their families from receiving the benefits they deserve. This legislation is needed to ensure that miners are able to obtain unbiased medical evidence, ample representation, and up-to-date benefit payments,” said Rep. Cartwright.

“We can’t stop working at this issue until we achieve a basic measure of justice for those miners who suffer from black lung disease,” Senator Casey said. “We know the black lung claims process is badly broken and in need of reform to target unethical legal and medical practices and to give miners a fair shot at justice. This is a commonsense approach that ensures impacted miners and their families don’t have the deck stacked against them.”

“Coal miners face a number of challenges pursuing federal black lung claims, including finding legal representation and developing sound medical evidence to support their claims,” said Rep. Bobby Scott. “The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015 ensures that miners have equal access to medical evidence and better access to legal resources. It also provides a remedy for those whose claims were denied due to recent discoveries of discredited medical evidence. This legislation will help miners and their families get the benefits they deserve.”

Analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News found that doctors who are paid by coal companies have systematically misdiagnosed miners with black lung as having other diseases, thus preventing the miners from accessing benefits. Furthermore, hearings in the U.S. Senate showed that coal company lawyers have caused some miners’ claims to be denied by withholding medical evidence that proves that the miner has black lung.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor has taken several steps to address the issues identified in these reports, but without congressional action, disabled coal miners who deserve black lung benefits will continue to be unfairly denied.

The Black Lung Benefits Act of 2015 will strengthen the black lung benefits program by:

> Improving miners’ access to medical evidence
> Requiring full disclosure of medical information related to a claim, whether or not such information is entered as evidence
> Helping miners review and rebut potentially biased or inaccurate medical evidence developed by coal companies
> Allowing miners or their survivors to reopen their cases if they had been denied because of medical interpretations that have subsequently been discredited
> Establishing a pilot program in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to provide unbiased evidence for the most severe black lung cases
> Adjusting black lung benefits to increases in the cost of living
> Helping claimants secure legal representation by providing interim attorney fees if miners prevail at various stages of their claim
> Developing a strategy to reduce the backlog of black lung benefits claims still awaiting consideration

Murray Mines Sue UMWA

Five mines owned by Robert E. Murray have sued the United Mine Workers of America claiming a breach of the 2011 BCOA contract, because the miners are making 103(g) hazard complaints to MSHA, instead of first going to the union or management with the hazard complaints. The complaint can be viewed here: 2015.09.18COMPLAINT-ConsolidationCoalv.UMWA-USDCNDWV

According to the lawsuit filed on Sept. 18, 2015, UMWA miners have an obligation under their union contract to first let a union rep know of a health and safety violation. That rep is then to let management know of the violation. If a miner believes his life is in danger because of a violation, management and the UMWA have 4 hours to correct the problem. In addition, BCOA-contract miners have a right to file a grievance within 24 hours regarding a health and safety dispute.

Murray Energy Corp. claims in the lawsuit that five mines acquired from Consol generated 54 mine safety complaints under the Mine Act’s Section 103(g), by calling MSHA’s toll-free hotline. “By contrast, MEC’s seven then-existing and controlled mines generated 37 Section 103(g) complaints received though MSHA’s 800 line.”

Murray Energy claims that MSHA’s hotline complaints have increased by 85%, and that 1/2 of those complaints were meritless.

The complaint filed in court also names UMWA representative Ronald Bowersox, claiming he organized several UMWA members to file the MSHA hotline complaints.

Phil Smith, the spokesman for the UMWA, said, “The Murray Energy lawsuit is completely without merit. We look forward to defending our members’ health and safety on the job in court as well as in the mines.”

The below figures are from the MSHA DRS on hazard complaints. You can see the number of hazard complaints and the number of citations and orders issued by MSHA inspectors based on those complaints. We have compared complaints of three – three-year periods:
The year before the sale of the mines was announced by Consol; the year after the sale to Murray Energy; and, a year-to-date perspective. Some complaints generated more than one violation, and many complaints showed no violations. For a complete list, see Mine Safety and Health News, October 2015 edition.

Dates:
Oct. 28, 2012 – Oct. 27, 2013 is one year before the sale announcement.
Oct. 28, 2013 – Oct. 27, 2014 is one year after the sale announcement
Oct. 28, 2014 – YTD represents a one-year time period

Ohio County Mine (formerly the Shoemaker Mine)
Oct. 28, 2014 – Present: 9 hazard complaints, 7 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2013 – Oct. 27, 2014: 5 hazard complaints, 2 violation cited
Oct. 28, 2012 – Oct. 27, 2013: No hazard complaints

Harrison County Mine (formerly the Robinson Run 95 Mine)
Oct. 28, 2014 – Present: 31 hazard complaints with 22 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2013 – Oct. 27, 2014: 16 hazard complaints with 14 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2012 – Oct. 27, 2013: 9 hazard complaints with 6 violations cited

Monongalia County Mine (formerly the Blacksville #2 Mine)
Oct. 28, 2014 – Present: 16 hazard complaints with 9 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2013 – Oct. 27, 2014: 9 complaints with 5 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2012 – Oct. 27, 2013: 8 hazard complaints with 7 violations cited

Marion County Mine (formerly the Loveridge #22 Mine)
Oct. 28, 2014 – Present: 27 hazard complaints with 47 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2013 – Oct. 27, 2014: 21 hazard complaints with 24 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2012 – Oct. 27, 2013: 22 hazard complaints with 29 violations cited

Marshall County Mine (formerly the McElroy Mine)
Oct. 28, 2014 – Present: 28 complaints with 53 citations and orders
Oct. 28, 2013 – Oct. 27, 2014: 20 complaints with 30 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2012 – Oct. 27, 2013: 6 complaints with 2 violations cited

Totals of the 5 mines listed in the complaint:
Oct. 28, 2014 – Present: 111 complaints with 138 citations and orders
Oct. 28, 2013 – Oct. 27, 2014: 71 complaints with 75 violations cited
Oct. 28, 2012 – Oct. 27, 2013: 45 complaints with 44 citations and orders

Vol22, No14 & 15

  • Accidents:
    • Miner has arm torn off by roof drill at Paramont Deep Mine #25 (311)
    • Foreman severely injured in conveyor incident at Subtropolis Mine (313)
    • Two coal miners injured by arc-flash gases in Kingston No1 (313)
    • Electrician caught under pipe at Cessford Construction Dredge (314)
    • McElroy Mine reports two personnel-carrier collisions in three days (314)
    • Driller sustains neck fracture at Mineral Ridge Gold Mine (315)
  • Discrimination: Miner over-exposed to ammonia gas at Veris Gold wins discrimination claim (316)
  • Fatalities:
    • Miner killed at Onton #9 was volunteer firefighter (317)
    • Roof-safety oversight found lacking in fatal ground fall at Fletcher Mine (318)
    • Roof fall death at Heilwood Mine blamed on wire-mesh handling method (320)
  • Horns and Backup Alarms: Horns must be functioning at all times on equipment (322)
  • Injunctions: Injunction granted where Kentucky mine owner threatened MSHA inspector (323)
  • Inspections:
    • Judge upholds specially-assessed penalty for delaying MSHA inspection (323)
    • “Company outside” was not a warning of MSHA’s impending inspection at Ken American Mine (324)
  • Private Suits: Farmington Mine disaster families seek to reopen lawsuit claiming withheld evidence (325)
  • Significant and Substantial: Commission remands case for additional S&S and unwarrantable analysis (326)
  • Withdrawal Orders: MSHA’s authority under §103(j) limited to rescue and recovery work (328)
  • Review Commission Orders and ALJ Decisions (330)