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Know the West

Two weeks in the West


Many a mud-spattered pickup truck in Western mining communities sports a bumper sticker that reads, "Behind every light switch is a coal miner." After the Crandall Canyon mine collapsed in central Utah on Aug. 6, the slogan took on a slightly different meaning for the anxiously watching American public: Behind just about every light switch, people are risking their lives daily in a dark and dangerous world. 

Trapped some 1,500 feet underground were six miners, maybe alive, maybe dead. Rescuers tunneled slowly through the unstable mountain, which shifted and groaned so much one wonders why it was being mined in the first place. Rigs drilled into the mountain from above, sending cameras down in hopes of a glimpse of the missing. Meanwhile, the scene on the surface was one of hope and despair. And it often devolved into farce. 

Robert Murray, the mine's co-owner, appointed himself spokesman for the effort. He has a history of blasting as un-American people who want more safety regulations for mines. Murray claimed that an earthquake caused the collapse, despite what seismologists said (the collapse itself actually triggered a quake); and he insisted that the miners hadn't been doing retreat mining, an especially dangerous method of extracting coal, even though the Mining Safety and Health Administration - MSHA - has strong evidence that they were. 

He might have been better off simply trumpeting his Utah mine's past safety record. In recent years, MSHA has cited Crandall Canyon approximately 80 times a year for safety violations. The mine reported one fatality and 61 injuries during the last decade, and MSHA slapped it with $264,025 in fines. These numbers may sound like an indictment, but in fact, they are almost all below the national average. Which begs the question: If a relatively safe mine can trap and bury six miners and then kill three rescuers - including one MSHA official, who had deemed the Crandall Canyon mine safe just months earlier - and injure six others, what does that say about coal mining in general? 

Forty-seven miners died last year in the United States while scooping approximately 1 billion tons of coal out of the earth, half of it in the West. (Compare that to a decade ago: Seven percent less coal was mined, dozens more mine safety inspectors were on the job, and fewer people died.) All that coal was then loaded into 7 billion railroad cars, shipped across counties or states or regions and burned to generate about half the electricity in the nation. Meanwhile, profits flowed for big companies like Peabody ($600 million in 2006) and Arch Coal ($260 million in 2006). 

Taken on a energy-unit-produced to fatality basis, coal mining has a better record than, say, the Iraq war. But that doesn't do much to ease the pain of the family and friends of the miners and rescuers lost in Utah this August. For them, behind every light switch is a husband, father or son, dead before his time. 

Wild, wild horses, we just can't drag them away. That's the tune officials are singing lately at Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada. The refuge has periodically rounded up wild horses and put them up for adoption to reduce the herd, which it says is overgrazing the refuge and damaging wetlands, meadows and riparian areas. The current herd numbers about 1,600, which is about 10 times the number in earlier management objectives. Officials had hoped to continue the roundups and to introduce contraceptives to keep numbers down. 

But wild/feral horse lovers are a passionate bunch, and after they got Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., on their side, they were able to put the kibosh on the roundups, at least for now. The horses will roam free while the refuge reworks an environmental analysis of its options. 

Meanwhile, environmentalists worry that the horses are chomping away the habitat of native species like pronghorn antelope and sage grouse. 

Biofuel boondoggle? 918 million

Annual biofuel refinery capacity in the West, in gallons (once current projects are completed). 55

Factor by which petroleum refinery capacity in the West exceeds this amount.  202 million

Gallons of biodiesel that could be produced annually from all the waste vegetable oil in the West. 0.7

Percent of annual gasoline consumption in the West this could replace. 50 cents

U.S. tax credit for a gallon of biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil. $1

Tax credit for a gallon of biodiesel made from virgin oil. 70.7

Millions of acres of corn that would be required to replace all gasoline used in the West gallon-for-gallon with ethanol. 70.2

Millions of acres of cropland in the West. 75

Ears of corn required to provide the ethanol in the E85 fuel for a 10-mile trip in a Mercedes-Benz C230 flex-fuel sport sedan. 3.6

Large ears of sweet corn required to provide enough calories to fuel a 10-mile trip by bicycle.