Hidden Costs of a Plentiful Resource
The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal. Coal generates half of our electricity, which lets us run air conditioners and dishwashers, charge iPods, and watch HBO and Cubs games at night. In so many ways, coal is the energy of America, and we have enough for 240 more years.
The blessing is mixed, as much coal must still be hauled out by the low-tech, backbreaking labor of men in a deep hole. Since August 6, coal has brought to television screens the slow-motion tragedy of six miners trapped under 1,500 feet of rock in Huntington, Utah. Three more died and six were injured in a rescue attempt 10 days later. Families and friends evoked prayer and yellow ribbons as they begged officials to continue the search. After several attempts to detect life through boreholes, officials say survivors are unlikely. Coal is cheap, but occasionally the cost is unbearable. And in this case, it increasingly appears that these deaths and this heartbreak could have been avoided. Robert Murray, the chief executive of the mining company, insists that an earthquake caused the collapse, but government seismologists say the collapse itself caused the shake. Experts questioned why workers were in the decrepit mine at all, with some accusing the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration of laxity in approving the site. And it appears that workers were engaged in dangerous "retreat mining," where coal is stripped from support pillars. The previous owners forbade the practice.
Disaster struck—as it has too many times before. After a mine collapse last year in West Virginia, which killed 12 of 13 trapped miners, the government enacted new safety standards. Key provisions dictate that workers should have enough water and oxygen to keep them alive for 50 hours. The legislation also calls for miners to have access to wireless communications, but after the collapse, Crandall Canyon's one-way devices provided no answers. Now Congress is launching two investigations. Perhaps this time officials will enact and enforce regulations that will make a difference. Coal giveth, but it shouldn't take away.
This story appears in the September 3, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.