The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last spring, our video team ran this short documentary about the unregulated, dangerous, environmentally disastrous coal mining operation in the northeastern state of Meghalaya, India—and its citizens struggle to find work after a judicial agency eventually shut down the mines:

The film struck a chord with this American reader:

As a former coal miner and coal operator from South Eastern Kentucky, I can relate to this video. That is very hard and laborious work. Thankfully we have mining laws and regulations that help to keep our miners in a much safer environment. Hopefully one day it will get better for these hard working people who are trying to make a living and feed their families!

Another reader doesn’t see the U.S. in quite as much contrast:

The situation with “wildcat” (i.e. unregulated) coal mining in India is dire, and it mirrors similar dynamics around the world, including in the United States:

- The spoils of wealth from extraction accrue only to a small number of owners, who possess immense influence on government. Often they are one and the same.

- Workers are subsistence / itinerate and remain on the margins of existence, despite being exposed to great risks while enriching others.

- The activity has huge negative impact on surrounding communities, quite literally leaving their villages uninhabitable.

Again, these same dynamics play out in the developed world: The costs of damaging activity are denied and externalised to and borne by society, while the profit accrues to a cabal who wield controlling influence on government—the only counterparty to whom others may turn for remedy.

A reader from the other side of the political spectrum:

The point is that no matter how much leftists try to destroy the coal industry, along with the world’s poorest who rely on it, people will continue to mine coal. Humans have been mining coal for thousands of years and today we still haven’t found and delineated all of the worlds coal deposits; it is effectively an unlimited supply. Coal is a clean, affordable, and valuable resource. Coal will save the world.

Fallows wrote a cover story back in 2010 defending clean coal, but only as a necessary evil. Grist’s David Roberts respectfully criticized the piece, elicited a response from Jim here. From it:

In my experience, “most people” who take climate issues seriously assume that coal is unambiguously the enemy. What I’d learned over these past years in China convinced me that coal is an enemy but an unavoidable one, and that while working on every other front we’ll be better off if we try to clean up coal too, rather than assuming it away.

Roberts replied in kind.