After Safest Year on Record, Coal Mining Deaths Raise Concerns
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. Coal mining is a historically dangerous job -- and it is our subject this week.
America produces more than half of its electric power from coal. Mineral experts say the country has the world's largest supply of coal waiting to be mined.
Coal mining in the United States is much safer than it used to be. Yet nineteen miners were killed in the first five weeks of two thousand six. That was almost as many as were killed in all of last year.
Most of the recent deaths happened in West Virginia. Twelve men died in a mine where inspectors found more than two hundred safety violations last year. Now, more than two hundred federal safety officials are examining the mines in West Virginia. West Virginia produces more coal than any other state except Wyoming.
The recent accidents led to a federal request for all coal mines in the nation to stop work for one hour on February sixth to discuss safety. And there have been other steps. In Pennsylvania, the governor ordered the re-inspection of all seventy-seven active underground mines in his state.
In Congress, a Senate hearing took place late last month to discuss mine safety. Senator Arlen Specter and others questioned David Dye, the acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.
Senator Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, noted a reduction in the number of federal mine inspectors as a result of budget cuts. Mr. Dye said he did not think that played a part in the mine accidents.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Labor Department inspects about two thousand coal mines nationwide. That is in addition to more than twelve thousand other mines.
Members of Congress from West Virginia have proposed several measures to improve safety for coal miners. Hearings on the proposed legislation are expected to begin in early March.
West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has already signed similar legislation for his state. Between January second and February first, West Virginia had four accidents that killed sixteen miners.
The first was an explosion in the Sago Mine. It killed one miner immediately. Eleven others became trapped in poisoned air. Each had about one hour of emergency oxygen.
A misunderstood communication from rescue workers made the events even more terrible for the families. At first, the mining company reported that the trapped men were alive. Hours later came the crushing news, though rescuers did find a thirteenth miner alive.
Then, on January nineteenth, two miners were killed in a fire in another West Virginia coal mine. And separate accidents on February first claimed the lives of two other men.
The year also began with coal mine accidents in Kentucky and Utah that resulted in three deaths.
President Bush has nominated Richard Stickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The last chief resigned in November of two thousand four.
Mr. Stickler is a former miner. Later he spent thirty years as a mining company official in Pennsylvania. He also led the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.
Senator Edward Kennedy expressed concern during a confirmation hearing. The Massachusetts Democrat questioned whether the nominee might be too friendly to coal companies.
Senator Mike Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, said Mr. Stickler has the knowledge and experience to do a good job. Senator Enzi said he believes the Senate will confirm Mr. Stickler.
The office of Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat, released a report on the Mine Safety and Health Administration. It showed that since two thousand one, the agency had withdrawn or delayed eighteen safety rules proposed under President Bill Clinton.
The agency, however, says it has increased its enforcement actions against mine operators. And it says it continues to seek ways to improve safety.
On February seventh David Dye, the acting administrator, announced special action to make several new rules. These would require mine operators to keep additional oxygen supplies in a storage area for each miner underground.
Operators would also have to provide lifelines along all escape pathways to help guide miners out of the mine. And they would have fifteen minutes to inform the agency of an accident. Current rules say only that the agency must be told "immediately."
The agency said it was acting under a rarely used process for emergency temporary rulemaking.
At the end of January, in Saskatchewan, Canada, there was a fire in a potash mine operated by an American company. Seventy-two miners all escaped the poison gas. They waited in a safety room equipped with additional oxygen. Workers rescued the last of the trapped miners after about thirty hours.
The United States has about one hundred thousand mineral miners. Close to eighty thousand of these men and women mine coal. Today they produce more coal from surface mining than from underground mining.
The Labor Department says miners earn an average of about fifty thousand dollars a year. The pay is good, especially for poor communities. Miners say it helps them face the dangers of their work. The risks can include fires, explosions, floods and deadly gases like methane and carbon monoxide.
The government says more than one hundred thousand miners have been killed since early in the twentieth century. But over the years the numbers have decreased sharply. There were twenty-two deaths last year -- the fewest on record.
Each year, the United States produces more than one thousand millions tons of coal. America is the second largest producer of coal, after China. Coal mines in China are known as the world's deadliest. Chinese officials reported that accidents killed almost six thousand coal miners in two thousand five.
In the United States, mine accidents and pressure from unions have influenced safety legislation over the years. The United Mine Workers union was established in eighteen ninety. Eight years later it helped establish an eight-hour workday. Protections like health insurance and retirement pay came later.
Mine operators often owned the communities where their workers lived. The miners could use their pay only at company stores and for company services.
One of the worst coal mine accidents in American history took place in nineteen-oh-nine in Cherry, Illinois. The Cherry mine was considered the safest and most modern of its time. People said there could never be a fire.
But one November day there was. It trapped four hundred miners. Some were under the age of sixteen. Two hundred fifty-nine men and boys died. Some miners who escaped kept going back. Like miners all over the world, they did not want to leave others behind.
In the end, the mine operator was punished for violating child-labor laws, not for wrongful death. The state ordered the company to pay about six hundred dollars.
Angry public reaction led to a major effort at mine safety reform. Congress passed the Organic Act of Nineteen Ten. The law established the Bureau of Mines to provide advice, training and research. But the bureau did not even have the power to inspect mines and investigate accidents. That changed in the nineteen forties and fifties.
In nineteen sixty-eight, a mine explosion at Farmington, West Virginia, led to the deaths of seventy-eight miners. The victims included an uncle of the state’s current governor. Congress later passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of nineteen sixty-nine.
That law expanded federal power to inspect mines and report violations. It also established health and safety rules for all mines. For example, it required payment for workers with black lung disease from coal and rock dust. Later came additional legislation.
Ten years ago, the Bureau of Mines ceased to exist. Its researchers moved to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Barbara Klein.
And I’m Steve Ember. Internet users can read and listen to our programs at voaspecialenglish.com. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.