Coal is king but its queen is safety

Americans rarely glimpse their troubling dependency on an inexpensive but dirty and dangerous energy source, coal. This week's mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 12 workers points to a need for greater care to justify a rising US reliance on coal.

Better mine safety is just one need. So, too, is less destructive mining and cleaner burning of a resource that may well serve American energy needs for two more centuries. More than half of US electricity is now generated with coal, and new technologies could soon enable liquefied and gasified coal to start replacing traditional petroleum.

While progress on all levels of handling coal has improved (mining deaths, for instance, peaked in 1907), the public's intolerance for accidents and pollution also continues to rise. Witness the nation's heartfelt reaction this week to a communication miscue at West Virginia's Sago Mine about whether the miners were found alive.

Coal executives and government officials should strive for better overall performance to justify a growing US dependency on coal. The nation has indeed seen sustained progress in coal-mine safety since the passage of tougher laws in 1969 and 1977, and the creation of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). But the industry's injury rate hit a plateau in the mid-1990s, indicating a need for MSHA to find other ways to enhance inspections, training, company compliance, and technical support, especially in the more dangerous mining done underground, and mainly in the Appalachian states.

Early reports on the causes for this week's accident indicate a need for state and federal inspectors to be given greater enforcement tools when a company shows a pattern of neglect in not taking all necessary safety precautions. The Sago Mine's safety violations rose sharply in 2005, a year when ownership of the mine changed hands. Higher fines and improved inspections will likely be required to counter such company lapses in management.

The Bush administration and Congress should also take a fresh look at whether MSHA's $280 million budget and 2,200 employees are adequate, given the forecasts for coal usage in the 21st century. (Worldwide, coal consumption is expected to rise 1.4 percent a year until 2030, or nearly 1 billion more tons a year than present levels.) Recent MSHA cutbacks and rule changes should be reviewed by Congress. Also, the agency's internal watchdog unit will likely need more authority to correct problems.

Nonetheless, fatal mine accidents, while serious, are not the major damage from coal usage. Pollution is considered coal's biggest killer, not to mention its likely contribution to global warming from carbon dioxide emissions. Coal pollution, however, has been greatly reduced since the 1970s due to new "clean" technologies and tougher enforcement.

But again, the nation must expect better handling of this cheap but dirty fuel, otherwise it should increase government support for cleaner but more expensive energy sources.

This latest mining tragedy should drive the US to look hard at the trade-offs in its coal dependency, and make sure the human and environmental costs are diminishing.

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