Coal Mining Disaster Brings Sorrow, Questions

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

What Choices Does WV Have?




This week's coal mining disaster in southern West Virginia is a tragedy for the miners, their families and their communities.

Coal mining is and has always been a dangerous job. Regulations and improvements in technology have made it somewhat safer, but obviously, not safe enough. More tons of coal come out of West Virginia each year than ever before, with fewer and fewer coal miners involved due to automation.

That's good news in that when the state used to suffer coal disasters a number of years ago, the fatalities could number well over 100 or 200 at a time. But even one life lost in a coal mining accident is too many.

The safest way to extract coal is thru surface mining. But that has tremendous ecological impact on the land, rivers, streams, and wildlife and can contribute to flooding.

So what is a state like West Virginia, which has so many jobs tied up in coal and which derives millions of tax dollars from coal mining, supposed to do?

It can't say "no more deep mines - it's too dangerous." It can't say "We'll only do surface mining," because not all coal is accessible in this manner and that has its own problems.

Any person running for office in most of the Mountain State who says anything negative about coal or the coal industry, doesn't stand a chance of being elected.

But there are several things that need to be said:

There are some coal operators who don't do enough to ensure workplace safety.

There are some coal miners who probably do un-safe things that jeopardize their lives and the lives of their co-workers for convenience or out of laziness.

The governmental groups charged with overseeing coal mine safety compliance obviously don't have enough teeth, or you wouldn't have mines with scores of safety violations, still operating, and putting miners' lives in danger.

There is a big push in this country for energy independence from foreign oil, that would have us all turn a blind eye to the problems of being too dependent on coal. Whether from the point of endangering waterways, contributing to flood dangers, or posing a danger to the lives of miners, coal has several challenges.

There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about "clean coal technology." But from what I read, that is NOT turning out to be the way to go in the countries that have been experimenting with it. It is proving too difficult, too inefficient or too expensive to do in a full-scale manner.

What West Virginia and other coal states need to do is push hard for stricter state and federal mine safety regulations. Any coal operator that cannot meet tougher standards and says it is being forced to shut down as a result, isn't a good employer in the first place, and given time, would end up killing more miners.

Any miners who are found not to be conducting themselves in a safe manner in the workplace, should be disciplined or fired and prevented from working in any other mines until they can demonstrate that they have learned their lesson.

The state must be constantly pushing for better education in coal areas, so that young people have options about where they want to work when they become adults and so that mining isn't the only logical choice.

And the state must begin looking for ways to rely less and less on coal as a major source of its revenues.

None of this will be easy. And there are many other challenges facing West Virginia.

But as long as we tie our future to the star of one natural resource - whether it's coal or something else - we will always be at its mercy.

That's this week's editorial.

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