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Kerry Trueman Headshot

King Coal: Willing To Kill For Kilowatts

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2008-07-27-CoalMinerCrucified.jpgCoal Miner Crucified--oil on canvas by Jack Savitsky, 1978

When a suicide bomber blows a half dozen of our soldiers into smithereens, Americans get understandably outraged. And here at home, when a deranged malcontent goes postal and guns down classmates or co-workers, we call it a massacre.

But if you kill nine men for the sake of keeping the juice flowing through America's veins, well, evidently, we're so addicted to cheap energy that we're willing to write off dead coal miners as collateral damage. What looks like manslaughter, if not outright murder, is handled as some sort of infraction. The penance? A pittance. Not enough to make much of a dent in King Coal's deep pockets. As the AFP reports:

The operators of a Utah mine at the center of a collapse that led to nine fatalities last August have been fined 1.6 million dollars, health and safety officials announced Thursday.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) said the operators of the Crandall Canyon Mine had failed to report repeated collapses at the facility which meant inspectors were unable to assess practices there.

Two federal reports released on Thursday reveal previously unknown details about the August 6th disaster. Now we know, for example, that the sheer force of the collapse probably killed the six workers who were trapped in the mine pretty quickly. So, they were probably dead long before three rescue workers died 10 days later trying to save them.
It all adds up to nine needless deaths, because the reports also make it excruciatingly clear that the mine's operator, Genwal Resources, had to know that it was risking its workers' lives. One of the reports found that Genwal had ignored warning signs that the mine was unsafe, and concealed dangerous conditions from the MSHA:

In a statement, Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for the MSHA, said the tragedy had stemmed from mine operator Genwal Resources' "reckless failure" to report three previous coal "outbursts," including one just three days before the initial incident on August 6...

..."MSHA also found that the operator was taking more coal than allowed from the barrier pillars and the floor. This dangerously weakened the strength of the roof support."

Ah, but the other report--this one from the Labor Department--sticks Stickler's own agency with some of the blame, finding that the MSHA never should have approved Genwal's mining plan in the first place, and failed to take full control of the rescue operation following the collapse. As Nelda Erickson, whose husband Don was killed in the August 6th collapse, told the New York Times:

"If everything was as bad as it was, then the men shouldn't have been in there...It's hard to swallow. I don't understand how the company got approval to do mining that deep underground."

Terry Byrge, whose son-in-law, Brandon Kimber, was one of the rescue workers who died, told the Times:

"They had those men working in a section they knew was doomed to fail...They were playing spin the bottle with their lives every day and taking a chance on whether those men would come out alive."

What we've got here is a government agency and a corporation who shared the mindset that a miner's life has less value than the coal that lies so deep that you're courting disaster to extract it.

If there is any silver lining to this black tragedy, it's the news that the Crandall Canyon catastrophe has apparently got the coal industry thinking twice about playing Russian roulette with the lives of its miners. As the AP reported on Friday:

Utah's largest coal producer will bypass $100 million of coal to avoid the kind of danger that led to the collapse at Crandall Canyon.

Arch Coal Inc. decided to pull back where a coal seam dips nearly 3,000 feet underground.

Well, hallelujah. But why did nine men have to die before a coal company concluded that it's not worth the risk? Oh, and if you're looking for anything resembling remorse or an admission of responsibility from Genwal, guess again. The company issued the following statement in response to the federal reports:

"Regrettably, this report does not have the benefit of all of the facts and appears to have been tainted in part by 10 months of relentless political clamoring to lay blame for these tragic events."

Genwal's preferred scapegoat was that old goat Himself--God. Genwal's owner, Bob Murray, insisted that the collapse was caused by an earthquake, and declared that "the mountain is alive. It's a deadly mountain..."

Bob Murray owns nineteen mining operations. He's got an abysmal safety record, as Utah blogger Bob Higgins noted on the Wasatch Watcher, citing a March report from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the August 6th disaster:

Murray Energy Has a Poor General Safety Record; MSHA statistics show that mines owned and operated by Murray Energy perform worse than the national average on safety measures. The injury incidence rate for Murray Energy owned and operated mines in 2006 was 69% higher than the national average...and, for the first quarter of 2007, 86% higher than the national average...

Oh, but guess what? Bob Murray's given a big chunk of change to Republican politicians over the years, too. Higgins sums the whole story up better than I could:

Crandall Canyon is a story about greedy capitalism and weak "public servants," a story of nine innocent men who died needlessly in the act of doing their jobs, because other men failed to, or ignored, their jobs, but it is more than that. It is a glaringly visible symptom of a cultural cancer that is devouring the heart of America, a disease which if not cured, and cured quickly, will destroy this country faster and more efficiently than any foreign enemy, faster than any band of bearded terrorists. We will not have to leave the shores or the boundaries of the United States to find and fight this sickness, it is in full bloom in boardrooms and executive suites in every corner of corporate America, in defense, in banking, insurance, health care and all the rest.

The carriers of this plague, yes, "the real axis of evil," have infested our private and governmental institutions with a level of incompetence, collusion and criminality borne of abject avarice that is stunning, disgusting and terrifying.

The Senate committee's report concluded:

...miners were exposed to unnecessary and extreme risks. The mine operator and MSHA must be held accountable for their failures of diligence, care and oversight. The secretary of Labor should refer the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

A Congressional investigation in May concurred, stating that:

...the general manager and possibly other senior staff members at the Crandall Canyon Mine...withheld information from federal officials that could have prevented the disaster and should face a criminal inquiry...

And Americas need to mourn the deaths of our miners as much as we mourn the loss of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, they're all fighting for the same thing--you know, the battle to feed our carbon cravings.

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