Flashbacks February 2006

Burning Up People to Make Electricity

Articles spanning the last thirty years make the case for better safety standards for coal miners.

On January 2, a mine explosion in Sago, West Virginia, left twelve miners dead. Less than three weeks later, two more West Virginia miners were killed in a mine fire. And when, shortly after that, yet another pair of miners died, West Virginia's Governor, Joe Manchin effectively ordered mines in his state to suspend operations until meticulous safety inspections could be carried out. Now, several months later, hearings are being conducted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training to investigate what went wrong at Sago.

Concerns about the safety of coal mining operations are not new. As a number of Atlantic writings from the last several decades make clear, the failure to adequately safeguard the welfare of miners has long been a tragic problem. In 1972, The Atlantic Monthly published an article titled "Yes, Sir, This Has Certainly Been Considered a Safe Mine" in which writer Rachel Scott described in dramatic detail an explosion at the Sunshine Silver Mine in Idaho and evaluated its aftermath. Not unlike the lightning strike that has been cited as the source of the explosion in Sago, the spontaneous combustion of volatile gases at Sunshine was in part the result of an unanticipated act of nature. Because Sunshine had long been considered a pioneer in mining safety, the accident was at first seen as an unpreventable fluke. But further investigation told a different story. "As the facts began to emerge," Scott wrote, "they suggested not so much a 'freak accident' as a flawed and familiar pattern in industry—of choosing, once too often, to favor production needs over safety precautions." Scott strengthened her case with statistics:

In the years since contract mining was introduced, the injury rate averaged 100.33 injuries per million man-hours, up from 86.60 for the previous six years. Launhardt [the company safety engineer] blames the mine's poor record on a rapid labor turnover and unstable rock conditions in the Coeur d'Alene district. A more likely reason, say some miners, is that top management just doesn't give a damn about safety.

Not long after the Sunshine Silver Mine disaster, Fred Harris (a former United States senator from Oklahoma) visited the mines of Harlan County, Kentucky, as a member of a group called Citizens Inquiry for the United Mine Workers (UMW). After witnessing a UMW strike at the Brookside mine of the Eastover Mining Company, he wrote an article titled "Burning Up People to Make Electricity" (July 1974). In it, Harris offered his firsthand impressions of Harlan's coal mining culture and a sensitive attempt to understand "what life is like for a coal-mining family." His concern about miners' safety was apparent throughout the account. "Fear," Harris wrote, "is an everyday part of the miners' lives." He quoted a Harlan woman who, like so many of her neighbors, had witnessed the effects of the mining industry at its worst. Her comments spoke to the tragedy that mining can bring to so many families:

I've seen some hurt and some killed. Seen 'em carried out on a stretcher.... My daddy's a retired coal miner, and he's got the black lung. My brother died at the age of forty. I've got five living children and four dead. My man was mashed up in the mines. He can't never walk again.
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