Saturday, May 17, 2014

Soma, Turkey Reminds Us That Coal is the Cross We Bear

Soma, Turkey just suffered the tragic death of 301 coal miners, the greatest coal mining disaster in Turkish history, and one of the largest in the history of coal. Soma reminds us that coal mining can be as dangerous as it is dirty. The history of underground coal mining is one of tragedy, of explosions, fire, caveins, suffocation, and later in life silicosis, “Black lung disease.” Even abandoned mines pose a risk in land subsidence, acid mine waters, and underground fires. Miners work in excruciating conditions, always aware of the possibility of a disaster. The ceilings are often too low for the miners to fully stand up. They breathe coal dust, work in dimly lit mine shafts, cannot relieve the pressures by smoking for fear of setting off an explosion. Excessive carbon monoxide levels are a constant risk; hence the presence of a canary in the mine. If the canary dies, the miners evacuate. What caused the Soma disaster? We will learn. Both the government and the coal company claim no negligence was involved. Of course there was negligence. An accident of this magnitude one mile underground could not occur without at least one human cause, and often a chain of causes, including bad decisions. We will learn soon enough. There’s no need to speculate at this point. The survivors, widows, children, parents, brothers and sisters will never fully recover as they live out their lives. Dreams have brutally died. If the owner and government are smart, they will discover the causes so that this type of accident does not occur again. Smart people, companies, and government agencies learn from their mistakes. Mining disasters of this nature can wipe out the owner’s investment. Even if the human capital is viewed as cheap, the capital investment is not. Turkey is not reputed to highlight worker safety as the United States does. Underground mining can never be absolutely safe, but safe mining practices, education, training, practices, inspections, and regulations can substantially reduce the risks. Thus, as in the United States we take notice when a major incident occurs, because it is rare. Twelve died and one survived in the 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, It was covered on the nightly news. 29 died in the 2009 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, again in West Virginia. Criminal prosecutions often result in these American tragedies. China has a poor history of mine safety. 1,049 coal miners died in accidents in China in 2013. China needs the coal. We need the coal. Civilization needs the coal. Natural gas may be cheaper in the United States, and burn cleaner than coal, but Turkey, like many countries in Eurasia lacks oil and gas reserves, but has substantial coal reserves. Coal fueled the industrial revolution. It still fuels the industrial heartland of the United States, notwithstanding the Obama Administration War on Coal. Coal is the energy of choice in much of the world today, including China and India. China builds a new coal plant every week. Coal, cheap and plentiful coal, provides for industry, commerce, our standard of living, and culture. Coal is the cross we bear.

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