Mining for coal safety

The US and China suffered recent coal tragedies. The contrast shows how far the US has come.

A Utah coal mine has been front-page news since it collapsed Aug. 6. Six miners are presumed dead; three rescuers lost their lives. In China, the news is of 181 coal miners trapped in a flooded mine. Hopefully both tragedies can lead to better safety, and a goal of no mine deaths.

There's a huge difference between coal-mining safety in the US and China. Last year, China suffered more than 4,700 coal-miner fatalities. In the US, it was 47 deaths. That difference is likely no consolation to the families and friends mourning their loved ones at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine. But it does point to the possibility of progress in this dangerous and dirty industry.

Mining experts liken Chinese coal extraction today to that in America 100 years ago, when the US was riddled with mom and pop and wildcat operations and mineshaft fatalities totaled more than 2,000 a year.

It took strong congressional action in 1969 and 1977, as well as the creation of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), to establish active federal mine inspection and enforcement of safety standards.

With each new tragedy comes an opportunity for better and tougher regulation – and more watchdogging of regulators as well. So it was that last year's deadly explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia again lit a fuse under Congress. The Miner Act of 2006 mandates two-way communications systems to track miners underground, quick-response rescue teams, and underground rescue chambers – but not until 2009.

While the US and China are worlds apart in mining safety, they share economic pressure to produce more coal. Demand is on the rise, and so is the price of coal. No matter which country does the digging, the temptation to sacrifice safety for profit must be resisted – and guarded against by regulators.

Prices for Utah coal were up 50 percent last year from five years ago. Even under those favorable conditions, though, the mine's previous owners decided not to remove gridlike coal "barriers" that support the ceilings and floors of already excavated areas. It thought the method, known as "retreat mining," was too risky.

Murray Energy, which bought the mine a year ago, began retreat mining – approved by MSHA – but stopped after a major "bump" in March forced it to close the northern part of the mine. A bump is a violent shift of earth and rock and can occur from excavation.

Murray Energy then sought and received permission from MSHA to do retreat mining in the southern part of the mine. It appears that a major "bump" in this area caused the Aug. 6 collapse.

It remains to be seen whether a MSHA investigation will result in regulations to tighten up risky retreat mining. That's a widespread practice and well understood.

Perhaps of greater interest is why MSHA approved Murray Energy's plans given the warning bump in March. That should prompt an independent investigation of MSHA.

As for China, Beijing is consolidating the coal mining industry. It has closed more than 9,000 small mines in the last two years, and fatalities through July are down 15 percent compared with a year ago. It could learn much from America's progress, but let's hope it doesn't take 100 years.

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