Editorial: Grim time for US coal miners

As we go to press, the worst mining disaster in the U.S. or Canada in more than two decades has just occurred at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch underground metallurgical coal mine in Montcoal, W. Va.

• The death toll at Upper Big Branch from an underground explosion centred 1.5 miles from the portal stands at 25 miners, with four still missing.

The body count surpasses the 12 killed in early 2006 in International Coal Group’s Sago coal mine, also in West Virginia and similarly a union-hostile workplace.

Details of the latest explosion are unknown at present, including what triggered the explosion, though presumably too-high concentrations of methane provided the fuel for a spark.

Initial media reports point to the mine’s and Massey’s chronically worse-than-average safety record, particularly with respect to proper ventilation, which is critical for safe coal mining. The Associated Press reports that in the past year, federal inspectors fined Massey more than US$382,000 for repeated, serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch.

Mine safety rules were substantially tightened following the high-profile Sago disaster, with U.S. president George Bush signing into law the Miner Act of 2006 in June of that year. It was the first major overhaul to mine-safety legislation since the 1977 passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act.

Last year was a record year for safety-violation fines at U.S. mines, partly because the Miner Act of 2006 almost quadrupled the maximum fines that could be issued to delinquent mine operators.

Mine-safety fines paid out by U.S. operators have quintupled to about US$194 million per year since the passage of the Miner Act of 2006. But there has been criticism that the new act’s focus on regulators levying fines rather than ordering unsafe mines to shut down has allowed unsafe operators to simply incorporate fines as an acceptable cash cost and carry on business-as-usual.

That said, 2009 was the safest year in U.S. mining history, as 34 miners died, a new record low, compared to 73 miner deaths in 2006. Also, almost 85% of all U.S. mines recorded no lost-time injuries in 2009.

However, the high death toll of this latest disaster may result in the Obama administration taking a fresh look at updating and strengthening the Miner Act of 2006, and possibly using this tragedy to increase union membership and power in America’s mines, using safety considerations as a wedge.

• Meanwhile above-ground, Appalachia’s coal miners were dealt a major blow by the Obama administration, as it imposed strict new environmental guidelines via the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that will sharply curb any new “mountaintop” and other open-pit coal mining in the Appalachian coal-mining states.

In a classic Appalachian mountaintop operation, miners effectively lop the tops off steep, coal-bearing hills, and dump any waste rock into nearby valleys, creating considerable immediate environmental damage to the filled-in valleys and their streams. The site is then restored over time through land-reclamation efforts.

Some mountaintop operations are carried out over the carcasses of past mines, and the effort actually mitigates previous historic environmental problems at the site such as acid-mine runoff.

More than 10% of U.S. coal production comes from mountaintop mines, but this figure rises to 45% for mountaintop leader West Virginia. Overall, about 70% of America’s annual 1.1-billion-ton coal output comes from open-pit mines, including mountaintop operations. Most of that total production is thermal coal, as about half of U.S. electricity is created by coal-fired power plants.

Mountaintop mines alone directly employ 14,000 Americans who churn out 126 million tons per year of coal, providing enough energy to power 25 million homes.

Obviously, the EPA’s curbing of mountaintop mining will be devastating for the economies of Appalachian regions dependent on mountaintop mining. Further, this new clampdown on all forms of open-pit coal mining will force more mining companies to expand their use of underground coal mines in the U.S., which are much more dangerous to operate than open pits.

Similar to U.S. and Canadian government officials failing to mention to the public the tens of thousands of extra auto-accident deaths that will result from increased full-efficiency mandates that necessitate the building of flimsier cars, the EPA neglects to mention the inevitable increase in coal miner deaths as it forces miners out of the sunshine in safe open pits and down into the ever-present dangers of underground mines.


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