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By J. P. Tangen
For Mining News 

Life's certainties remain death and taxes

Media misses real story in West Virginia coal mine fatalities, focuses instead on company's disputes with federal watchdog agency


April 25, 2010

It is said that two things are certain: death and taxes. Since most of us have just sent off our annual tribute to the sovereign, it seems timely to reflect on death for a while. Always an indelicate subject in our society, death stalks us all. None of us are getting out of here alive.

Of the 61 million people who will shuffle off the mortal coil this year, roughly 90 percent will die as a result of some medical condition, which leaves all other causes with the rest. Half of those people, about 3 million, will die as a result of violence, war or traffic accidents.

No statistical review, of course, softens the bereavement suffered when a loved one dies, nor should it; however, those who work in the mining industry should take comfort in the knowledge that mining is one of the safest industries in the United States.

This thought is brought on due to the extraordinary coverage that death from domestic mining incidents receives in the popular press. The recent tragedy in West Virginia grotesquely underscores the point. There was an explosion. Lives were lost. Sacred, valuable human lives. Nonetheless, a large focus of the coverage was on the fact that the mining company had a history of safety violations, as if to imply that but for the negligence or misconduct of the company, these brave souls would still be with us.

Nothing I have read makes even the slightest effort to go behind the isolated facts to draw a nexus between the allegations of violations and the causation of the fatalities. In a gaseous environment, it does not require a safety violation to precipitate an explosion.

Anecdotally, anyone close to the mining industry in the United States is well aware of the fact that the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is charged with ensuring the mining workplace is a safe one, does its job to an absurd extreme. They make a mockery of the process by citing innumerable trivial offenses routinely. Some even argue that this is their perceived mandate. But whether this is the case or not, with regard to the Massey disaster, the repeated statistic was that the company was challenging more than 200 citations, as if to imply that there was an evil motive in disputing criticism.

It seems incongruous in the extreme to imagine that a money-grubbing capitalist would waste time and resources resisting sanctions that could simply be passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business; unless, of course, there was something thought wrong with the citations. When you and I get a traffic ticket, no matter how much we love our money, we pay the fine. Even if we have a colorable excuse, the time and costs associated with fighting city hall just isn't worth the benefit. Don't think for a minute that coal mining is more dangerous than traffic violations - more than 3,500 people a day die in automobile accidents.

Companies don't fight MSHA citations because they enjoy it; they fight them because that is the only way, under our system, to try to focus light on the extreme practices of the agency. Ironically, this is the huge back story that the press has totally missed.

Unfortunately people die prematurely on a daily basis. I am mindful of the four police officers recently shot in a Seattle coffee shop while preparing for their day on the street. These heroes confront violence on a daily basis; their demise was duly marked by memorials reflective of their contribution to the community and the risks they take on a daily basis to keep our communities safe. Nowhere was the press coverage focused on the number of safety violations the police department had incurred or whether the oversight was adequate.

It is submitted that the miners of America are no less heroic than our men in blue. Much of our energy comes from mined coal; and, by extension, virtually all of our social amenities are the direct result of commodities derived from the ground, whether lead or gold, zinc or silver, molybdenum or platinum. Mining is labeled as a dangerous occupation; however, mining in America is far less dangerous than shopping in Wal-Mart.

As we reflect on the lives lost in West Virginia, let us put it in perspective. Grieve though we must, the startling fact remains: Miners are safer in the pits and tunnels than they are on the way home from work after their shift; and in an American mine they are, perhaps, safer than anywhere else in the world.


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