The coal industry does not suffer an experience like this without feeling a hugely emotional sense of loss. None of us believe that any amount of coal is worth a single life—one fatality or injury is one too many. During times like this it’s more important to let the families and friends mourn their loss and show respect for the dead.
U.S. President Barack Obama showed his respect for the families and, at his behest, the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced it will conduct an investigation. Those investigators will gather the data needed to determine the cause. The investigation must run its course. Until it’s completed, outsiders who do not understand coal mining will continue to second guess the industry. The mainstream media will vilify the coal business no matter the results.
Even by mining industry standards, the death toll from the Upper Big Branch mine is staggering. In one fell swoop, all the talk about the coal industry’s improving safety record has been silenced. The industry thought it had made great strides since the deadly 2006-2007 period when a string of underground coal mining incidents drew unwanted attention. Congress reacted with new laws, and heavier enforcement. The statistics showed improvement, but two years is a short time span.
Historically, the U.S. coal industry has not experienced a tragedy of this magnitude since 1984, or maybe 1970. Can you remember back that far? If you can, you were probably a new hire fresh out of college or the military starting an exciting new high paying job during a period of severe economic uncertainty created by the oil embargo or the 1980 recession. The world and the coal mining business have changed a lot since those days. Or, has it?
An entire generation of coal miners has worked underground without witnessing an incident like this. They should take heed: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Coal mining is a dangerous job. As professionals, our job is to make sure the conditions under which these brave miners work are as safe as possible.
Underground coal mining is in the spotlight again and it’s the worst possible light. As far as repeating mistakes, if the response from regulators is directly proportional to the reaction from that of a few years ago, the coal industry should prepare for an onslaught of more stringent regulations, hefty fines, etc. At some point though, the cycle must be broken and industry leaders—management, labor, regulators, and academics—need to find a way to work together to affect positive change. Otherwise, the cost of underground coal mining climbs and that weakens the U.S.
Fate can be cruel and humbling. We should think about that as we achieve each safety milestone. The Upper Big Branch miners did not know that April 5, 2010, was going to be their last day on earth. We should remember that and try to strive for the best because of that. These men will not pass in vain. The coal industry will learn from this experience. God bless the families in southern West Virginia that had to pay the ultimate price.