Coal Tattoo

Record low mining deaths — but is that enough?


The old year had barely ended before The Associated Press sent out its year-end story that U.S. mine deaths had hit a record low in 2009.

The total in the headline and the story — 34 — includes the 18 coal miners and 16 metal/nonmetal miners who died across the country last year. For coal, the previous low was 23 in 2005 and for metal/nonmetal it was  22 in 2008, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Kentucky led the U.S. with six coal-mining deaths, but that was still a drop from 8 deaths in 2008. Alabama was next with four, and was one of four states that had more deaths last year than in 2008 (the others were Illinois, Louisiana and Tennessee).

Here in West Virginia, the three coal-mining deaths was tied for the lowest total ever with 2005. You can check out all of the state-by-state numbers for coal with this MSHA chart.

But it’s important not to make too much of such numbers. And personally, I have become wary of these end-of-the-year stories — perhaps it’s just being superstitious,  but it’s almost asking for trouble. Several mine safety regulators have expressed the same sentiment to me. And of course, don’t forget that after the record safe year in 2005, we were only two days into 2006 when the Sago Mine blew up.

MSHA chief Joe Main, quoted in that AP story, said the numbers for 2009 were encouraging, but that he won’t be satisfied until no miners are killed on the job:

It is historic. And it does tell us we can achieve a point in time when we have no fatalities.

I think that’s accomplishable, if you look at where we came from, and where we’ve come to.

(Note that AP has decided to call Main the Obama administration’s mine safety czar … what’s up with that?  I mean, he’s an assistant secretary of labor, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, not some White House adviser with a made-up job title)

And Tony Oppegard, the longtime Kentucky mine safety advocate, reminded readers of the AP story that mining remains a very dangerous job:

Everyone who’s involved in mine safety has to be extremely vigilant. There’s very small margin for error in coal mining. The smallest mistake can cost a miner his life.

Indeed, it didn’t take long for the U.S. coal industry to record its first death of 2010.

Just before midnight on Jan. 2, a worker was killed in an accident in a surface shop at Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountains Mine No. 1 near Roundup, Montana.  The death came just a few days after MSHA ordered that mine to shut down its longwall after a miner was injured and the company failed to meet federal accident reporting requirements.

More and more people are conceding that the coal industry’s safety goal really ought to be pretty simple — for nobody to get hurt or killed … as a Kentucky Coal Association official said in the AP story:

“It’s never positive when you have numbers like that, but it could have been worse,” said David Moss, spokesman for the Kentucky Coal Association. “We’re always striving for that goal of zero. That’s what we work toward every single day.”

Brett Harvey, CEO of CONSOL Energy, has been preaching that as well:

The blows to our industry’s reputation created by high profile mine accidents impact the safety regulatory environment in which we operate. But I also believe that our poor reputation for safety – however undeserved we think it is – impacts our ability to manage other issues of equal importance to us.

Remember the scene from the movie “The Godfather?”

Don Corleone explains why he must say no to the drug dealer who wants the Don’s political protection. He says, “It’s true I have many friends in politics. But they wouldn’t be my friends for long if they knew my business was drugs, because….frankly…drugs is a dirty business.”

If we are perceived as “a dirty business” when it comes to safety, why would our friends in Congress or the agencies work with us on other important issues.This perception even jeopardizes our role as a key provider of energy to the U.S. economy.

This past Sunday, for example, Thomas Sowell, the noted conservative economist at the Hoover Institute, wrote that the U.S. could reduce mine accidents if we had more nuclear generated power and less coal-fired power.

The message should be clear to all of us. Eliminate the problem.

The best way for the industry to close the reputation-reality gap is to eliminate accidents. To be at zero.

All of us need to be there. Only when key stakeholders know that mine accidents are the exception rather than the rule will we truly be able to effectively manage the many public policy issues we face.

My great-grandfather was a member of the industry’s first mine rescue team. I believe in the importance of safety. I recognize that expecting coal to be a zero-accident industry might be seen as tilting at windmills. But I believe that if we commit ourselves to this goal, we can reach zero. It is within our grasp.

Moreover, we owe it to the men and women who go into the mines everyday to produce America’s energy. We owe it to them, and we owe it to their families. We also owe it to the country — because America needs us. We mine America’s energy resources.