Energy independence comes at a risk

    If the United
    States truly wishes something akin to energy independence, it basically
    has two ways to go _ nuclear power and coal. The United States has vast
    reserves of coal and, despite nearly two centuries of digging away,
    many of them are in the eastern U.S. and deep underground.

    It is a fact of geology and geography that Eastern underground mines
    tend to be in relatively isolated Appalachian areas and that mining
    tends to be a family occupation. The larger world tends not to think
    how its electricity is derived until a disaster occurs to remind them.

    Such a signal event occurred in 1969 when a mine explosion in
    Farmington, W.Va., killed 78 and resulted in the landmark 1969 Coal
    Mine Safety and Health Act, with deaths falling from 203 in the year of
    its passage to 56 in 2003. Increased productivity, resulting in a
    smaller work force, was also a factor.

    The mine disaster in
    Tallmansville, W.Va., that killed 12 should be another such landmark
    event in the difficult path to making an inherently risky occupation as
    safe as possible. And that could well mean, in this anti-regulatory
    age, more regulations and more government workers to enforce them.

    There will be federal and state investigations, and discovery in the
    inevitable lawsuits, into what caused the explosion at the Sago Mine, a
    facility that had a problematic safety record.

    Shuttered in
    2003, the mine had 68 safety citations and $9,500 in fines in 2004 but
    205 citations and $24,155 in fines in 2005. There may be explanations
    for this _ the mine had changed hands, production was being ramped up
    after the closing _ but the investigations should also determine
    whether corners were being cut, whether management was negligent or
    careless, and whether such ominous signs as an abnormal number of roof
    falls were ignored.

    And Congress must get involved. The federal
    Mine Safety and Health Administration has lost 170 positions and its
    budget has declined under the Bush administration. Lawmakers must
    determine whether the Bush administration’s predilection for letting
    industries solve problems on their own diluted regulatory enforcement.

    Market-based solutions are fine, but the miners’ safety has to be
    removed from the equation. We already have an example of what happens
    when mining is unregulated _ China, which loses an average of 5,000
    miners a year, including 169 in a single disaster in November and 214
    last February.

    Mine-safety regulations work, and the deaths of those 12 miners underscore the case for aggressively enforcing them.

    (Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at) Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,