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Coal industry puts miners, environment at risk

Too many companies operating deep-shaft coal mines sacrifice the lives of miners for profits.

Too many companies that operate strip mines devastate the environment.

And the coal industry in general, along with some electric power plants, is one of the greatest contributors to the world-wide calamity of global warming.

Recent news stories provide new evidence supporting these observations. The first was the deaths of six miners trapped 1,800 feet underground at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Huntington, Utah.

It appears the collapse of an underground tunnel where the six miners were working was a result of a process called "retreat mining." It involves removing some of the remaining coal pillars that support the roof of open chambers in the mine where most of the coal has already been removed. At times, the weight on the remaining columns becomes too great, causing an explosion that sends rocks and coal flying in all directions.

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A similar but smaller explosion of this kind had happened in the same mine six months earlier.

Safety experts have called retreat mining inherently dangerous, but the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has not made it illegal.

The federal government has not been known for imposing strict safety measures on the coal industry.

Coal industry owners historically have made large contributions to political candidates and have used their influence to limit safety requirements.

After 12 miners were killed in a coal mine accident on Jan. 2, 2006, at the Sago mine in West Virginia, the International Herald Tribune reported, "The mine, with more than 270 safety citations in the last two years, is the latest example of how workers’ risks are balanced against company profits in an industry with pervasive political clout."

The offenses of mountaintop strip mine operators in Appalachia are equally flagrant. Their practice is to remove the trees and rock on the tops of mountains to gain access to the coal underneath. The rocks and rubble are then dumped into adjacent streams, blocking some, causing floods in others and polluting whatever water is left.

It is clear that there is little concern in the coal industry for the safety of mine workers or for maintaining a clean environment. A similar public-be-damned attitude is shared by many operators of coal-fired electric utility plants.

Here’s how that issue is reported in the Washington Post’s ’Coal is King’ article: "According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientific advocacy group, annual emissions from a typical coal (electric power) plant, include 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, the major cause of acid rain; 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide, a major contributor to smog; 500 tons of small particles which caused lung damage and other respiratory problems; 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead; and many other heavy metals, including 170 pounds of mercury, which can cause birth defects, brain damage and other ailments...

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"But the big issue is global warming. Burning coal accounts for more than one-third of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. In addition, in a single year, a big coal plant emits as much carbon dioxide as 1 million SUVs."

In fairness, it should be noted that not all coal-fired power plants cause so much environmental damage. For instance, Rochester Public Utilities is spending $34 million to reduce harmful emissions at the coal-fired Silver Lake power plant. RPU also has extensive plans for producing micro-grids that produce power through use of use geo-thermal heating, wind power, solar power and hydrogen fuel cells — all forms of renewable energy.

The U.S. has huge reserves of coal, but it is time to acknowledge the damage that widespread use of coal has done. Worker safety in shaft mines can be greatly improved through legislation — and environmental laws could mitigate the bad effects of strip mining on the landscape. In both cases, we need to act in the best interests of the public, not of the coal mine operators.

Global warming is a much larger problem and will require enlightened political leadership. We need to make drastic cuts in greenhouse gases and major progress in developing renewable energy. The solutions are known, but they will require major changes in how we live.

The first steps must be to recognize the problem and to realize that time is running out. If we have the political will, we can save coal miners’ lives, stop the environmental destructiveness of strip mining and take action against global warming.

However, it won’t be easy and it won’t happen unless American voters learn about these issues and insist on corrective action.

Bill Boyne is the former editor and publisher of the Post-Bulletin. His column appears weekly.

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