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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Disaster and death

Another disaster in another coal mine, and it is again the miners and their families who bear the immediate price.

I spent five years in West Virginia, in graduate school, from 1970 to 1975. Each year, there were coal mine disasters, deaths, communities shattered. Each year, in one way or another, someone in the coal mining industry reminded us that mining is dangerous. It is, but it does not have to be.

In 2008, 40,500 workers were employed in underground and surface mining in the US. There were over 2,600 reported cases of injury (including death); 26 of those injuries were fatal (apparently, according to the NY Times, 35 died in 2009). 2010 will almost certainly be worse. But in Germany, where, in 2009, over 30,000 workers were employed in mining coal, only about 1,200 workers were injured and only 4 fatalities occurred.* High injury and fatality rates are not a necessary consequence of coal mining in an advanced, industrial country.

And it's happening again. At least 25 miners are dead and at least four are missing and presumed dead in an explosion in a coal mine near Montcoal, West Virginia (about 40 mines south of Charleston).

This makes two things clear. First, that safety regulation in coal mining is not optional. It is essential if we want to regard ourselves as a civilized country. Second, that the system is broken. The New York Times, reporting the current disaster, tells us:

"For at least six of the last 10 years, Federal records indicate, the Upper Big Branch mine has recorded an injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations. The records also show the mine had 458 violations in 2009, with $897,325 in safety penalties assessed against it, of which it has paid $168,393."

This is, according to the Times, a company that took safety, if not casually, then not as a priority. 458 safety violations discovered in a single year--and inspections are not a daily event. Fines of less than $2,000 per violation, of which only 18% were even paid? Human life? Less important than coal. Unless we, as citizens and voters, decide we care more about the lives of coal miners than we do about cheap energy, unless we press our Representatives and Senators to enact more stringent regulations, and unless the US Mine Safety and Health Administration has the power and the will to enforce those regulations, then, in another two years or less, another mining disaster will occur. More people will die, needlessly. Another community will be shattered.

*To be fair, things are worse--a lot worse--in China.


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