“Coal is more important than life.” That is how Pam Campbell, sister-in-law of miner Marty Bennett who died inside Sago Mine, sums up over a year of government and coal corporation stalls, speeches, secrecy and frustration. More than a year after Sago exploded in January 2006, killing 12 West Virginia miners, the country’s 2,100 coal mines are no safer.
Last year was a great year for coal corporations like Sago’s owner, International Coal Group (ICG). The National Mining Association (NMA), a consortium of mining companies, says coal miners produced 1.16 billion tons of coal worth an estimated $55.6 billion. That is more than the gross domestic product of the United Arab Emirates, an oil producing country. The NMA predicts 2007 will be another banner year, with miners expected to produce 1.17 billion tons of coal worth an estimated $56.16 billion.
Last year, on average, the nation’s 100,000 miners produced 11,600 tons of coal per worker or $561,000 per person for the coal companies. Companies, union and non-union, pay miners an average of $50,000 per year. Coal continues to be the fuel of choice for producing electricity in the U.S., accounting for 50.5 percent. Despite global warming and efforts by scientists, the NMA expects coal devoted to electricity to grow by 1.5 percent in 2007.
While coal operators count their profits, coal miners and their communities are struggling. In 2006, says the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), 47 miners went to work and never returned home to their families. Thirty-seven miners died underground and another 10 miners were killed at surface strip mine operations. In the first two months of 2007, three miners have died at work.
Over a year after Sago, both the West Virginia Legislature and Congress have enacted mine safety legislation, but little has changed on the job. Sago families told the Charleston Gazette in December that if Sago happened today, their family members would still die. MSHA is hiring more mine inspectors. Coal operators, though, have blocked even the least of safety reforms — the requirement that accidents be reported to MSHA within 15 days of their occurrence.
Safety devices and workplace improvements that cost coal operators money are years in the future, if at all. For example, there is no legal deadline to install improved communications to locate miners in distress. In fact, West Virginia’s Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training does not require mine owners to submit plans for wireless devices until August 2007 and purchase orders will be accepted to prove compliance with installation. Neither federal nor state law sets deadlines for coal mine owners to provide life-or-death breathing equipment, self-contained self-rescuers (SCSRs). Here, too, company purchase orders are proof of compliance. While it is estimated that 35,000 to 100,000 SCSRs are needed, coal companies claim there is a long waiting list, with first deliveries from the nation’s largest manufacturer of SCSRs, CSE Corp., not expected until late 2007.
There are no new SCSRs in the mines. But Draeger, another manufacturer of breathing devices, told the Charleston Gazette that more than 6,500 units are stored in their warehouse near the Pittsburgh airport. “We haven’t had that many orders,” said Wes Kenneweg, president of the company’s North American operations.
Despite overwhelming evidence from other countries including Canada that underground rescue chambers save miners’ lives, Congress only mandated a study on their effectiveness with a report due next December. Congress ordered coal companies to provide additional mine rescue teams but then granted MSHA until the end of 2007 just to write additional regulations governing the teams. Meanwhile, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin backed away from a promise to close unsafe mines until owners corrected safety violations.
The Sago families remain true to their promise to stick with this fight. “We basically continue to fight for what we think needs to be done for the rest of these coal miners,” said Pam Campbell.
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