Coal Industry Funding Should Be Conditioned on Better Mine Safety
When the Congressional Research Service published a survey on the status of coalmine safety and health in 2008, the investigators claimed that "safety in the coal mining industry is much improved compared to the early decades of the twentieth century."
That's a pretty low bar, and the level to which it has been raised over the last century isn't very encouraging.
Twenty-five miners were killed last Monday in a methane explosion at Massey Corp.'s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W. Va., about 30 miles south of Charleston. At press time, another four were missing, with their rescue considered unlikely.
It's being called the deadliest mining disaster since 1984, when 27 people were killed in a fire at a Utah mine. More tragic than a single disaster are the cumulative statistics: About 37 people a year have died in work-related fatalities at America's coalmines over the past decade.
Five miners suffocated in Fairview, W. Va., in 1986. Another 10 died in an explosion in Wheatcroft, Ky., in 1989. Explosions in Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and West Virginia between 1992 and 2006 led to another 46 deaths. A mine collapse in Huntington, Utah, led to another six deaths in 2007.
When you consider that there are fewer than 45,000 underground coal-mining jobs left in the United States — including about 3,000 in Illinois — this is a staggering toll.
As the Congressional researchers noted, "the fatality rate among persons employed in the private sector was 4.2 per 100,000 workers in 2006, compared to 49.5 ... in coal mining."
The history of coal mining in America is one of industry contempt for coal miners and government indifference to their safety — even in recent times.
Basic safety standards relating to emergency responses had been stalled for years at the time of the 2006 disaster at the Sago Mine in West Virginia.
Nationally, mine operators had been cited for more than 500,000 safety violations between 1996 and 2006. But penalties were small and many were substantially and routinely reduced on appeal.
Congress enacted new safety legislation in 2006, but by 2008, many regulations still had not been implemented. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, meanwhile, has failed to adequately train its personnel and inspect mining facilities as required by law.
CNN reported Tuesday that in 2009, MSHA proposed nearly $1 million in fines for more than 450 safety violations at the non-union Upper Big Branch mine, including penalties for more than 50 major violations. Clearly, the regulations need sharper teeth.
Coal remains a major source of energy and will be for years to come. The great coal debate so far has focused on the environmental destruction caused by mining and the role coal plays in climate change and respiratory illness, especially in children. Entrepreneurs, meanwhile, tout technologies they claim will lead to "clean coal."
But coal never will be "clean" so long as miners are endangered needlessly and negligently. Coal miners are collateral damage, except in the aftermath of disasters such as Monday's explosion in West Virginia.
The only way to break the cycle and get Big Coal's attention is to condition taxpayer support for industry initiatives on dramatic and sustained improvements in miner safety in addition to environmental concerns. Withhold tax breaks and public funds and see how fast safety improves.
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