Coal miner deaths on the rise

The news that five coal miners in eastern Kentucky died after an explosion underground was chillingly familiar.

The culprits at the Darby No. 1 Mine appear to include those suspected in the deaths of 12 miners at the Sago Mine in West Virginia on Jan. 2 _ an explosion in a sealed-off area and problems with breathing devices.

But while it’s not yet certain what happened at Darby, it is clear that mine fatalities are spiking after years of gradual decline.

The deaths at Darby, plus two more last week in separate accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky, bring to 33 the number of men who have been killed in the nation’s coal mines during the first five months of this year. Only 22 were killed in all of 2005.

One thing that all of this year’s fatal accidents have in common is that they have come at a time when coal companies are pushing for more production to meet rising demand, after several years of relatively relaxed federal enforcement of mine safety regulations.

Some mine safety experts warn that things could get worse before they get better, as companies bring on line more previously marginal mines.

This year’s spike in fatalities could be an anomaly, but Tony Oppegard, an adviser for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration and now a Kentucky-based advocate for miners, said it suggests a turnaround in a long-standing trend toward safer mines.

With new mines opening, more miners on the job and coal production climbing, the higher death toll is rooted in a Bush administration policy of “compliance assistance” instead of enforcement, Oppegard said. At one point MSHA even changed the job title of its coal mine inspectors to “compliance assistance specialists” before criticism caused a reversal.

“The MSHA philosophy is misplaced because its core belief is wrong: that all coal companies want to do a good job on safety and all they need is encouragement and coaxing,” Oppegard said.

An MSHA spokesperson issued the following statement in response: “(The agency’s) sole mission is to protect the health and safety of the miners and enforce the standards. MSHA’s commitment to the safety and health of all miners _ through enforcement, technical assistance and education and training _ remains the number one focus in our effort to return miners home to their families safely at the end of every shift.”

MSHA statistics show that 2005 was the safest year in history for mine safety and that fatalities have declined over the past three years even as production began to rise.

According to MSHA, the number of coal mines has increased from 1,972 in 2003 to 2,061 last year. The number of miners has jumped, too, from 73,886 to 81,900. Meanwhile, coal mine fatalities fell from 30 in 2003, to 28 in 2004, and to 22 last year.

While most of the fatal accidents this year have not occurred at new mines _ Sago opened in 1999 and Darby in 2001 _ Oppegard said rising coal prices have prompted coal companies to push for more production at both old and new mines.

“In eastern Kentucky they are mining coal seams that people wouldn’t have thought about 10 years ago. Some mines are marginal and some are undercapitalized,” Oppegard said. “We haven’t seen accidents there yet but I don’t think the upward trend in mine accidents will stop until there are major changes in enforcement.”

Jeff Skousen, a West Virginia University soils and reclamation professor and past president of the American Society of Mining and Reclamation, said West Virginia coal operators are pushing production because “anything black you can sell right now.”

“There are more people underground than there have been in a decade and some of the mines got put in really fast,” he said. “Miners are a careful bunch and the accidents we’ve seen are sad and unfortunate, but I venture to guess we will see more. We’ve been lucky over the last five years, but now a lot of smaller operators have kicked in, reopening marginal mines that weren’t worth the risk before.”

In Pennsylvania, coal production is increasing, mines are expanding and at least two new mines are opening this year as operators respond to rising demand, especially from Asia. The price of Pennsylvania coal has risen from $24 to $28 a ton in 2001 to $37 to $42 a ton now, depending on the quality of the coal.

Tom Rathbun, a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s mining bureau, said Pennsylvania has been tougher in policing mine safety than some states and doesn’t rely on federal inspectors to protect miners on the job.

“We take mine safety very seriously,” Rathbun said. “There’s more mining but we want to see companies make a commitment to safety. We’re not letting anyone just jump on the mining bandwagon.”