Corporate Buyouts of Mines Play Part in Safety Issues

West Virginia was the second largest producer of coal in the United States in 2005, producing 160 million tons or 13% of total production, while Wyoming was number one, producing 380 million tons, 35% of the nation’s total coal production. However, the coal produced by West Virginia is more in demand than that which is produced in western states as it is considered a cleaner burning coal.

With demand for alternative energy sources in the U.S. at an all time high, the price of coal doubled over the past two years, as natural gas and oil prices have sky rocketed with supplies diminishing, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico in August of 2005. The Gulf produces nearly 40% of the nation’s natural gas and refines nearly 30% of the nation’s oil and is still hampered by the storm’s devastation. In 2006, coal is expected to provide over 50% of the energy necessary for U.S. electric utilities and speculators expect the future of the coal industry to extend its growth over the next decade, returning to its rate of production prior to the 1970’s.

The tragedies of the 2005 hurricane season along the Gulf Coast as well as the subsequent flooding of New Orleans, LA served to expose flawed emergency services systems on all levels of government in addition to failed levee maintenance. Victims who endured Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita as well as several other storms in Louisiana, Mississippi, parts of Texas as well as Florida, have been promised that government and its respective agencies would be examined and mistakes made would be corrected. Yet it remains to be seen if proper funding oversight will be followed through or if indeed lessons will be learned.

Similarly, the mining explosion of Sago Mine in Tallmansville, WVA, in which 12 miners lost their lives on January 2, 2006, with one surviving miner who still remains in a coma as of a week later, will be steeped in paperwork and months of several independent investigations, including federal and state hearings. While it would appear that running a mining operation is fairly straight forward, the fact that the work in this underground mine is done 25 stories below the surface of the earth, makes it ripe for facts to be less than forthcoming. But maybe the legacy of the tragedy of Sago will unveil the real cost of the purchase of mining operations in the 21st century, by investors with little or no interest in the history of mining or its real inherent risks.

The evolution of mining technology as well as the work of the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) has led the way for miners’ safety rights vastly improving the lives of miners throughout the U.S. The UMWA was largely responsible for the advent of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, known as the Coal Act, which established health and safety standards for miners both in underground and above-ground mines. The Bureau of Mines was given the power to levy fines and criminal penalties on mines in violation of the law. In addition, free chest x-rays were available for underground miners as well as a compensation fund.

The Coal Act was amended in 1977 in what is now known as the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, or the Mine Act, which is the prevailing legislation today. The Mine Act helped strengthened the Coal Act with better enforcement of its statutes and combined federal safety and health regulations for all mines, coal and non-coal, under the same piece of legislation. In addition, a new agency within the Department of Labor, known as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) was established with a director appointed by the president of the U.S.

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