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.

Even the safety regulations already in existence, Harris pointed out, were often willfully circumvented. "Somehow," Harris wrote, "management always knows when the government inspectors are coming." One miner told Harris that the foreman "walks up and says, 'We've got to make this mine look good now, boys; the inspector's comin'." During his visit, Harris learned of numerous safety violations at Harlan's Brookside mine.

Three of the federal reports state that there was no safety committee at Brookside, as required by law. J.D. Skidmore says that, back in the mines, the phones are always out of order, there is no transportation out until the end of the shift, and it's a one-hour walk to daylight. The roof is approximately forty-eight inches high in the mine. "Try walking out of there, carrying a man with a broken back," one of the miners says. "Roof falls are a constant hazard, but the bosses just keep on rushin'"...

The miners say that they often have to stand knee-deep in water while handling 440-volt electrical cables. There's water in the mine because the pumps often won't work. When fuses blow, they are not immediately replaced; the cable is spliced or "hot-wired" around the fuse. Breaks in the cable, they say, are often just wrapped with masking tape and exposed again to the water. When a miner complains, Jerry Johnson says, the foreman says, "If you don't like it, you can always get your bucket," meaning pick up your lunch bucket and get out.

Four years later, in "American Serfdom" (June 1978), Harry M. Caudill described the mining industry in the wake of the 1977 coal strike, when 160,000 members of the United Mine Workers of America walked away from their jobs as a result of the 1974 Bituminous Coal Contract's expiration. While Caudill's focus was primarily on labor relations, he also expressed concern about the issue of mine safety.

Trouble in the coalfields is endemic and perpetual, like the "war" in Ulster and the timeless turbulence between Arabs and Jews. Coal operators will not treat their employees as human beings, government will not compel them to do so, and the workmen will not always accept the status of industrial serfs. They rebel often, and each time they do so the nation views with alarm and points with indignation.

At the same time, the industry has been dogged by an appalling lack of safety in its operations, leading to major disasters over more than a century. And the carnage continues. In 1971 the death rate in U.S. deep mines was six times as high as in Holland. In 1977 the death toll was 142, and the death rate in U.S. strip mines was twice as high as that the Dutch sustained in their vast operations under the floor of the North Sea. In 1976 the number of man-days lost owing to accidental injuries sustained in all major U.S. industries per million man-hours worked amounted to 10.9. In the coal industry the rate was 33.8 Since 1906 more than 92,000 men have died in the mines and at least 1,660,000 have been disabled.

Given the steep price paid in human tragedy, one might wonder, why do we not wean ourselves of our dependence on this resource? In "The True Cost of Coal" (December 1993), Robert Cullen took up the question. Not so long ago, he pointed out, things did seem to be heading in that direction. As of 1973, the Federal Power Commission was forecasting that electricity generation in the United States would come to depend less and less on coal. But the oil crisis of the 1970s and the Three Mile Island accident of 1979 soon brought coal back into vogue.

Coal had the virtue of being widely available inside the United States. And at a cost of less than two cents per kilowatt-hour of power, it was cheap. It was, in fact, so much cheaper than renewable resources like wind and solar energy that it all but eliminated them as commercial sources of electricity.

But "cheapness," Cullen pointed out, is relative. "Society, or some segment of society," he wrote, "will eventually pay."

—Elizabeth Frazier and Elizabeth Pantazelos

Elizabeth Frazier and Elizabeth Pantazelos are interns for The Atlantic Online.
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