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Is it just me...

...or when it comes to coal mine safety, do miners always get the shaft?


Face it, we never think of the people who do scary, difficult jobs until there is a tragedy. No one worries about the electrical worker climbing a utility pole in a snow storm until one of them is either electrocuted or falls to his death. Police officers and firefighters rarely invade public consciousness until the performance of their duty results in the loss of a life. The same is true of miners. The 29 men killed at the Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia would otherwise have lived and died doing a dirty, dangerous unpleasant job in complete anonymity. Now, in the aftermath of a predictable, unnecessary mine explosion, these miners will become symbols of the unsafe and deplorable conditions of the Massey Mining Company's operation. In a week, no one will care...again.

Mine safety is something everyone assumes is a given. Hell, it's 2010. The company store that Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about owing his soul to, is history. Children are no longer sent into the mines to sort coal. Black lung disease isn't the scourge it once was. We don't even endanger canaries anymore, right? Wrong.

Coal mines are not safe. They are not even reasonably safe. Conditions may be better than in 1900 but that is like suggesting that, because the Chinese have stopped chaining factory exit doors, conditions are now tolerable. Coal mines are dangerous because companies like Masey Coal have determined that it's cheaper to protest citations and delay safety improvements than take the costly action necessary to comply with regulations. The penalties for violations are so inconsequential that adhering to safety guidelines is unprofitable and consequently unthinkable. In their black little hearts, they mutter, "what's the big deal? They're just miners. We can always get more."

In a sane world, the fine for permitting unsafe methane build-ups in a coal mine should exceed that for allowing your dog to poop on the streets of New York. If a mechanic knowingly and repeatedly installs faulty brakes or tires on customers' cars, he will be prosecuted. If your neighborhood daycare center encloses their property with barbed wire, the full weight of the legal process will be brought to bear. However, if you run a dangerous business in an area of America where no other employment exists, your workers are prisoners and victims. You can always threaten to shut the mine down leaving your workers with the Hobson's choice of fear of their job or fear of no job. You can hide your unsafe enterprise easily because the New York Times rarely ventures into southern West Virginia. It's the perfect place to exploit people.

So Montcoal, West Virginia will bury their dead and life will continue in the mines. (The irony of spending a week digging the bodies out of the mine so they can be buried is lost on the owners and managers of Massey Coal.) Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia will be reminded how important the coal industry is to a state where few other industries exist. Coal operators will promise change. State and federal authorities will demand compliance with regulation. The miners will shake their heads, grab their hard hats and return to the pit. In coal country no one's hands are clean for very long.

Originally posted to Is It Just Me on Wed Apr 14, 2010 at 09:55 AM PDT.

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