The wrenching drama of the latest coal mine disaster, this one at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, reminds us to be careful what we wish for. Just as the Obama administration is finally imposing a moratorium and stronger regulations on “mountaintop removal” as a means of getting at coal through open-pit mining, an explosion in a deep mine points up the hazards of getting at coal the traditional way.
Black lung disease, maiming injury, and gruesome death have been the wages of coal mining for nearly two hundred years, even as the mines spawned a militant and organized workforce that successfully demanded improved working conditions, better wages, and benefits such as health care and pensions. These gains reduced, but could never eliminate the fundamental hazards of working underground to tear the guts from the earth.
The mining companies never willingly made these improvements: it was union pressure on both companies and on state and national governments that achieved those gains. Mountaintop removal mining was intended to undercut the unions by drastically reducing the workforce needed to extract the coal. It required that government regulators look the other way as whole watersheds were wiped out, and the very landscape of the Appalachians was stunningly transformed on a scale that was far worse than the culm banks left by the deep mines. But mountaintop removal, though driven entirely by the profit motive, did have a side benefit in reducing the risk of death and injury such as we are witnessing today in West Virginia. Simply, there are far fewer people working, and the work they do is far less hazardous.
For the folks in the hollows, from Pennsylvania to Alabama, it’s a hell of a choice. Typically, the mine offers the only local employment with a living wage for those without a college education. Those who do get an education get out. Deep mining employs far more people than mountaintop removal. The need for jobs causes people to be suspicious of the very government regulations that might save their lives: they fear that tighter regulation will cost them their jobs.
The rest of us need to come to terms with the real costs of “cheap” coal. It will either come stained with the blood of generations of miners, or it will be the marrow sucked from the bones of the broken earth. We need to find a way to renewable energy on a large scale, and we need to do it in a way that will provide livelihoods to the folks of the coal hollows. No matter how you dig it, coal is death.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University