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  Geotimes - December 2007 - Geologic Column

Underground Coal Mining Health and Safety: A View From the Inside
George Luxbacher

On Aug. 6, the nation was transfixed by an unfolding disaster in Utah. Six miners were trapped in a coal mine. Over the coming days and weeks, the nation’s attention focused on the rescue, even as three rescuers died trying to save their colleagues. In the months since the disaster, everyone from the families of the dead miners to the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration has asked for answers on the cause of the mine collapse and called for new mine-safety laws. But new safety laws are only part of the challenge: The other part is having the educated workforce to carry out those laws. Increasingly fewer people are being educated and trained in mining and engineering — people who need to take over the business when the baby boomers retire — and that may only lead to more problems.

Some 35 years ago, I started my first job in an underground coal mine. Among my vivid recollections of that day are two signs at the portal: “SAFETY FIRST” and “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR BUDDY.” To me, those two signs together demonstrated the core value of mining safety: the collective responsibility of the owner, engineer, supervisor and worker in assuring that mining is conducted responsibly and safely. Nothing in my subsequent industrial employment or extensive contacts with others in the industry has ever suggested anything to the contrary. Based on data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, since the day I started working in 1970, coal production has increased more than 80 percent, while fatal injuries have decreased more than 90 percent — today more than half of the coal mines in this country operate each year without a single lost-time injury.

Unfortunately, recent high-profile events have created a negative public view of mining, leading some to question that commitment to safety. Recent mining disasters, such as at the Sago Mine in Sago, W.Va., and the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, Ky., in 2006, and the Crandall Canyon disaster this year, have reemphasized that the underground coal industry operates in a complex, often harsh, geologic setting.

We live in an age where man has been to the moon, space shuttle flights are routine (although risky) and submersibles dive to the seafloor. So it seems like there should be technological answers for improved underground coal mining safety as well. Unfortunately, geologic conditions underground differ greatly from fixed, aboveground structures, and the technological requirements and solutions are complex. For most of the 20th century, the U.S. Bureau of Mines drove health and safety innovation. But when the Bureau of Mines shut down on Sept. 30, 1996, the industry lost both its best health and safety resource and a critical source of funding to university programs in this area.

Funding for universities is beginning to trickle in again, but not nearly at the rate needed to train coal workers to safely carry out mining techniques. In June, a committee of the National Research Council released a 198-page report called Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy that gives some insight into current government priorities. Of the $538 million spent by federal agencies for coal-related research and technology development in 2005, the lion’s share, $492 million or 91 percent, went toward coal utilization, power distribution, etc. Of the remaining $46 million, $25 million went toward mine worker safety and health, and the last $21 million was spread among environmental protection and reclamation, resource and reserve assessments, and coal mining and processing. While this report was balanced in its assessment of coal mining, the resulting press clips were negative and didn’t focus on the main thrust, a required increase in funding of $144 million exclusive of coal utilization, $35 million of which was required for mine worker health and safety.

The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 amended the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 to provide specific areas with additional funding, which will help in the short term at least. But universities with programs in mining engineering need sustainable funding — not just the kind that comes immediately following a mining disaster — to develop and maintain faculty and facilities to produce the future generation of health and safety professionals. Mining engineering is a unique discipline, involving the design and engineering of an extractive process taking place within a geologic matrix. Despite that uniqueness, there are only 13 accredited mining engineering programs in the United States today, and many of those programs struggle in an academic environment that tends to favor higher enrollment engineering disciplines.

While global warming and carbon management cloud the horizon — for example, The Wall Street Journal noted that Citicorp recently downgraded coal stocks partially for “the uncertainty of future costs associated with carbon emissions” — all energy forecasts include coal as a strong component. So overcoming current technological challenges should be a top priority. Only through health and safety research programs, strong university programs in mining engineering and committed graduates will we push our technology boundaries forward.

Luxbacher, P.E., is the president-elect of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration. He is vice president of operations for Glenn Springs Holdings, Inc., Lexington, Ky.

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