It is hard to imagine the effect on our quality of life if the more than 1 billion tons of coal mined annually in the United States were suddenly unavailable for our use. Electric lights would go out, air conditioning would stop, airport control towers would be hampered, traffic lights and computers would cease to function, the economy would stagnate, and our lifestyles would be plunged into chaos.
U.S. coal reserves are estimated to last at least 100 years at current consumption rates. We are thus assured that coal mining will be a national priority well into our grandchildren's lives unless environmental issues dictate a rapid switch to alternative energy sources such as nuclear, wind, solar or some as-yet undeveloped technology.
With the recent loss of life in the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia and other mining accidents, a wave of contempt is growing for the coal industry at the federal, state and regulatory level. One or two poorly managed mining operations should not condemn the entire industry, especially with the superior safety records established over the last few years. However, history shows that any major disaster spurs the establishment of new regulations. Thus, it is evermore valuable to examine the working conditions of the U.S. underground miners who toil daily in the dark and dangerous depths of Earth to produce hundreds of millions of tons of coal a year.
Modern U.S. coal mines are highly mechanized, high-production operations. Long gone are the days of hand drills, underground explosives, shoveling coal into small transport cars and mules working underground. Today, machines such as "longwall shears" and "continuous miners" are capable of extracting hundreds of tons of coal in hours rather than days.
The dark side of this apparent utopia of highly efficient, high-capacity mining equipment and methods are their many accompanying hazards. A few of the many hazards include: the frequent presence of methane gas, certain concentrations of which, if ignited, can explode with disastrous consequences; unstable roof conditions that require support and continual monitoring; accumulations of respirable coal dust in the air miners breathe, which, if not controlled, can lead to black lung disease (a critical and painful reduction of breathing ability); exposure to diesel exhaust fumes, which, if not controlled, can also cause lung diseases; mining equipment accidents; and the constant threat of fire. Even a small fire can quickly spread and become a raging inferno in the fuel-rich environment of an underground coal mine, spreading huge quantities of deadly carbon monoxide throughout the underground workings.
Many more hazards exist, but fortunately all the hazards are well-recognized and can be neutralized by using safe operating procedures and properly maintained equipment, while periodically training miners. But if these routine hazards are well-recognized and can be controlled, why did the Sago mine disaster occur?
At this time, with the investigation still being conducted, it is foolish to speculate. However, from the limited public information available, it seems as though both the mine operator and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have a lot of explaining to do. If mandatory safety regulations were only being casually enforced, both parties need to be held accountable.
While the investigators try to piece together the sequence of the events that preceded the accident and recreate the missteps that caused the fatalities, let us remember that coal mining is an evolving industry, continually introducing new equipment procedures and techniques to increase productivity and worker safety. The vast majority of the nation's coal mining companies are responsible, reliable companies that have long-term goals of providing the nation with a reliable coal supply at a reasonable, competitive price while ensuring the safety and health of their workers.
Congress should not blindly rush to add additional legislation to the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, although it would be prudent to conduct more oversight hearings to see that MSHA is fully conducting its duties under the act. Since the legislation's enactment, the fatalities in U.S. coal mines have steadily decreased since 1977, and 2005 was a record low with only 22 fatalities occurring in a workforce of 40,000 underground coal miners.
Rushing to burden an already heavily regulated industry with additional regulations when the circumstances of the recent tragedy are unclear is irresponsible. Furthermore, legislation that proposes to add an Office of Science and Technology Transfer to conduct research within MSHA is taking us backward to the early 1970s, when the U.S. Bureau of Mines conducted both mining research and enforcement activities in the nation's mines. This arrangement was found to be a glaring conflict of interest and enforcement activities were quickly transferred to a newly created agency - the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration in 1973. Mining research responsibilities are now adequately addressed by the extremely competent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Furthermore, a topic that has been discussed for many years, but never finalized, is the question of the enforcement agency conducting an investigation of a disaster occurring in an operation under its jurisdiction. The perception of accident investigators, often employed by the mining companies, being "too close" or inclined to protect their employer has lingered in industrial accidents since the creation of MSHA. Such a perception - that Congress and the public are not getting hardnosed, facts-only investigations - is accurate. Now is an opportune time for Congress to reopen this debate. Now may also be the time for Congress to create an entity such as the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate all industrial accidents resulting in worker deaths above a certain threshold.
Without a doubt, additional research and training are also necessary to enhance miner survival during emergency conditions. Areas where additional research is required include: communications systems that can survive explosions, fires and ground failures (both two-way and one-way warning systems); refuge chambers that can withstand extreme heat and explosions; immersive training where miners periodically don breathing simulators and exit the underground workings; and mine rescue team training and competitions held in underground environments rather than staged on ball fields and in gymnasiums.
As society considers these issues and others, it is important to remember that hundreds of the industry's experienced miners have reached retirement age and are rapidly replacing their hardhats and work boots with straw hats and fishing poles (see story, this issue). This shift is creating a huge demand for new miners, which the industry is struggling to find. These new miners are inexperienced and will require years of training and experience to reach the level of productivity and safety that their fathers and grandfathers have achieved.
While the discussions concerning the causes of the Sago mine disaster continue, industry, labor, Congress, MSHA, NIOSH, universities, equipment manufacturers and other participants in the extraction of our second largest source of energy should reassess their participation and consider how they could be more proactive in making our underground mines a safer and a healthier place of employment for our nation's miners.
We owe the men and women who labor deep belowground and risk their lives to provide our quality of life the best equipment, the best technology, the best training and the safest work environment our resources can provide. And we should always be looking for new ways to improve the safety of these mines. Anything less is simply not acceptable.