An age-old story of the high cost of coal


The news from Appalachia coal country, where at least 25 miners died and four more remain missing in a huge underground coalmine explosion earlier this week, is unimaginably grim. Not since 1984, when 27 perished in a fire at Emery Mining Corporation's Orangeville, Utah, mine have so many died in a mine accident.

It's even more appalling that Massey Energy, the company operating the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where the explosion occurred, has a recent history of serious safety violations at the mine. The AP reports:

In the past year, federal inspectors fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch. The violations also cover failing to follow the plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and having improper firefighting equipment.

The West Virginia disaster is one of those events that shows us "that lives may be changed by what happens across the river, or over the hill or even a thousand miles away," as High Country News founder Tom Bell wrote in a 1979 editorial after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. "The realities of how lives are affected quickly come home in the consequences of (that)  incident."

The human toll of energy production has long been a topic for High Country News, During the 1970's when industry rushed in to stripmine the West's vast coalfields, Contributing Editor Dan Whipple opined about "King Coal's legacy of irresponsibility", writing that "six years ago this month, 130 million gallons of water and mine refuse rushed down the narrow Buffalo Creek valley in West Virginia when a refuse dam failed, killing 124 persons and leaving 4,000 homeless. This disaster could have been prevented, according to a citizens' committee that investigated it, by proper construction of the dam.  Company officials called it an Act of God."

Whipple continued, "This same industry now claims that mining regulations will cause them irreparable damage.

"In addition to this demonstrated, callous disregard for land and individual welfare, the industry's record in protecting even its own workers is abominable."

In a 1974 article titled "The Hidden Costs of Coal" written for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and reprinted in High Country News, (cover image at right, or click here to download the entire article as a pdf) United Mine Workers of America President Arnold Miller shared his perspective as a coal miner: "Coal mining is hard, dirty work, and when you have time to think on the job, you mainly think about your survival.

"The hidden cost of coal is the one we pay – the people who mine it.  It is a high price.  We get killed.  Since the Bureau of Mines started keeping records of such things back in 1910, about eighty thousand of us have been killed.  No other industry comes close to that."

To be sure, coal mining has improved its safety record over the years, thanks to technological advances, tighter regulations and stiffer penalties for safety violation.  Coal miners no longer have the most dangerous job around; fishermen, loggers and pilots now top that list.

But as High Country News Senior Editor Ray Ring reported in 2007, other energy workers – those in the gas fields – are paying a high price too, one that's likely underestimated.

Death in the Western oil and gas fields is a story best told through people, rather than statistics, partly because the stats are, as even OSHA might say, inadequate. No one can know exactly how dangerous this industry is, compared to others, because the record-keeping is anything but exact.

As this week's explosion proved, coal mining is still dangerous work and violating safety regulations can be deadly.  And as the profiles of the individual men from the small community of Montcoal, West Virginia, killed in the accident emerge, we'll be able to understand the statistics, but never quite grasp the tragic burden shared by the community and its families.