While miners labored in the 600-foot-deep recesses of the Clinchfield Coal Co.'s Pilgrim Mine here, the coal-dust monitors they were supposed to wear lay piled illegally in fresh-air vents away from the work area.
Cards certifying that the monitors had been worn properly were allegedly forged by a company secretary signing miners' names. And Clinchfield allegedly issued federal training certificates for at least one worker who had received no training for the crucial safety inspections he was conducting.
Those allegations formed the basis of an 89-count federal criminal indictment -- the largest ever brought against a coal company and its officials for mine-safety violations -- and ultimately led earlier this month to a $100,000 fine, the largest ever paid.
But while it is in some ways a triumph for coal-field safety, the Clinchfield case has had an unsettling aftermath. It has left miners feeling betrayed by its plea-bargained conclusion and federal prosecutors uneasy about the constitutionality of mine laws. A special federal investigator says that, as a result of this and other cases, he fears for his life.
"I'd never heard of a man's lungs being bargained off like a used car," says miner Harlan Hall, president of United Mine Workers Local 2261, which represents workers at Pilgrim. "Clinchfield got off easy."
Tucked away near the Kentucky border in the mountainous heart of coal country 400 miles southwest of Washington, the 70-worker Pilgrim Mine is just a small part of Clinchfield's operation.
Clinchfield, in turn, is just one of 10 coal companies owned by the Pittston Co., the nation's largest independent coal producer. The mine works a "low-coal" seam, which means most miners earn their $76 to $85 a day by spending eight hours stooped over in a tunnel no higher than three feet.
"Once you're in it, you're there for the whole day, lunch and all," says miners James York. "It's something you either get used to in a hurry or you quit."
To provide oxygen, the mine is honeycombed with air shafts forming a ventilation system. One shaft is known as the "dinner hole," where the men eat during breaks.
One day earlier last April, special federal mine investigator Clarence (Al) Goode got a phone call from Clinchfield safety inspector Thomas Townes, who claimed lunch pails were not the only things being stored in the dinner holes.
According to Goode, Townes alleged that the special battery-operated pumps that record coal-dust levels in the mine -- and which miners must wear periodically, according to federal law -- also were being stashed in the holes, where they were recording fresh air instead of coal dust.
Goode is chief of a four-member investigative unit that federal prosecutors credit with helping to lower Virginia's mine-fatality rate, the nation's highest until this year. The unit's probes have helped lead to five other criminal convictions of mine companies for safety violations in the last two years by the U.S. Attorney's office in Roanoke.
Goode enlisted help from Pilgrim Mine's UMW members, many of whom told the investigator that they had never seen a monitor, let alone worn one. This was despite the fact that federal regualtions for the last three years had required their use in an effort to reduce mine explosions and black-lung disease.
The rules also required that the miners fill out cards certifying the accuracy of the monitors. Some workers told Goode that they had never seen the cards, which allegedly were filled out by a company secretary and sent on to the regional federal mine-safety office. Goode also concluded that Clinchfield officials had allowed other hazardous conditions at the mine, including operating a mining machine without sufficient air volumes and risking a potential explosion.
Union local president Hall, 33 and a two-pack-a-day smoker, says company foreman discouraged use of the monitors because they did not want to risk shutting down production for any period. Temporary shutdowns and federal fines could have occurred had the monitors revealed excessive amounts of coal dust.
"It was production first and safety second," says Hall. "The bosses were always afraid for their jobs."
Goode's investigation led to a federal grand-jury probe that resulted in the indictment against Clinchfield and 11 company employes last July. The company faced $850,000 in fines and its officials a total of 368 years in jail. c
The company was prepared to fight. Pittston Coal Group's top lawyer, Paul Thomson -- ironically, the former U.S. attorney who launched the mine-safety crackdown -- led the defense, along with Judah Best of Washington, who gained fame as Spiro Agnew's chief attorney.
Best and Thomson hit prosecutors with a string of complex legal motions alleging, among other things, investigatory misconduct by Goode and "prosecutorial vindictiveness." More promising was a detailed motion that alleged defects in the 1969 Mine Health and Safety Act and in subsequent regulations issued by the federal administrators.
"If they charged by the pound or the page, they made a fortune," quipped Assistant U.S. Attorney William Sellers, who helped prosecute the case. But Sellers and his boss, U.S. Attorney John Edwards, concede that U.S. District Court Judge James Turk appeared ready to drop a large portion of the indictment as a result of defense arguments.
As a result, the prosecutors agreed to a plea-bargaining arrangement that dropped all charges against company officials in return for a guilty plea by the company to four misdemeanor counts. Included in the four was the main charge that Clinchfield took air samples that it "well knew did not accurately reflect the amount of respirable dust to which miners . . . were exposed."
Thomson says the company was largely the victim of disgruntled miners, who refused to use the monitors and then blamed supervisors. He says the company at most was guilty of civil, not criminal, offenses and pleaded guilty only to avoid trial and protect its supervisors from possible jail sentences.
Sellers calls the case "a good settlement from the government's point of view. . . . Companies will think twice before they risk heavy fines and criminal indictments."
The miners are not so sure. "Pittston spends more than that on Christmas presents," says miner York, referring to the $100,000 fine.
UMW President Sam Church Jr., who used to direct the union's activities in the Virginia coal fields, contends the prosecutors did not do their jobs. "I just don't think they are carrying out the responsibilities of their office," says Church.
As for investigator Goode, his files were broken into in August and some Clinchfield evidence was stolen. The break-in has not been solved.
That same month, Goode says he was driving in his government-issued car on a back road near Coeburn, Va., when a Bronco jeep pulled up and a bearded man pointed a shotgun at the investigator. No shots were fired, but Goode was forced off the road and pulled up two feet short of a 500-foot cliff.
Clinchfield has denied knowledge of either incident, and investigators say they have no link to the company.
Goode says he is scared that some day a federal investigator will be killed. The miners, who note that three of the Pilgrim Mine supervisors named in the indictment still work at the mine, say they are frightened, too.
"It may take awhile, but I know they'll get even," says the UMW's Hall. "I just don't know when."