Lessons to NOT learn from the Utah Mine Disaster
The National Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is understaffed, the current administration has reduced the number of required inspections, and still the MSHA is falling behind in its scheduled inspections. This piece by Jeff Biggers, In Coal Blood, http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/08/15/coal/ tells us that “the abuse of coal miners has always gone hand in hand with an abuse of the land environment.”
MSHA, industry leaders, and the administration argue in the wake of the recent tragedy that mine safety has been improving as mining deaths have decreased on average in recent years. However, the National Mining Association, the industry association, states that underground coal mining employment has fallen by 60% from 1985 to 2005. The measure of the success of MSHA should be to what degree the reduction in deaths has exceeded 60% over a 20 year period.
In 1990, 66 coal mine related deaths were reported. Coal mining deaths in 2006 were 47, and with the Utah Mining disaster we have surpassed 2005’s total already this year with 24 deaths. In the wake of this tragedy, mine safety remains a largely broken and potentially worsening issue as funding continues to decrease.
I’m also worried about a potential argument I see developing: mine executives pushing for more surface mining as a way to avoid paying for safety improvements to their underground mines. As Jeff Biggers points out, over 475 mountains have already had their tops blown off in Appalachia. The resulting damage to the land, increase in flooding, rise in water pollution, and damage to tourism means that mountaintop removal is NOT an acceptable escape hatch for mining executives who do not want to spend more on miner safety. However, the NY Times recently revealed that the administration is changing the rules to allow more mountaintop removal mining (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/23/us/23coal.html?em&ex=1188014400&en=9b33684477558d9f&ei=5087%0A.)
Coal miners and their communities do pay the highest personal price. Prioritizing the substitution of more destructive mining practices like mountaintop removal instead of drastically improving safety will guarantee that those miners and their communities will continue to pay the ultimate price.