Another Coal Day In Hell

Many times have I discussed the possibility that we live in a world that is less than sane. Or that I am insane and hence the world merely appears crazy to me. But as time marches on and events unfold, the evidence mounts in favor of yet another premise.

I have always known that evil exists. But I have never wanted to consider it an attribute stemming from a single source or creature, such as a Satan, for example. I have, however, come to see that the actions of some people are inherently evil and result in circumstances that are so wrong, they actually appear insane to any rational observer.

In school, I studied logic. When logic is reduced to subject taught in a classroom, it seems so obvious in premise as to be redundant. In this day and time however, logic has obviously become irrelevant.

The only thing that really matters anymore is achieving the desired outcome or result. The argument or facts used in the process may well be illogical, irrational, insane, or even evil. Since very precious few are ever really paying attention to what is actually going on these days, a clever mind can get away with just about anything by simply fooling some of the people some of the time.

A good example is the environmental rape of Appalachia. Appalachia is not a country, or a person or a type of plant or animal. It is a region in the USA that includes the southern Appalachian Mountains, extending roughly from southwestern Pennsylvania through West Virginia and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee to northern Georgia.

The environmental rape I am referring to is called "mountaintop removal." It is a modern form of coal mining. First explosives are used to shatter rock formations. These explosions can scatter particulate debris for miles causing serious health problems. Once the dust settles, huge power shovels expose the coal deposits. Commonly 400 to 500 feet of mountain peak is removed to uncover the flat, through-the-mountain, coal seam.

The rock and earth that has been displaced is dumped into hollows and ravines, often completely burying forest and streams under tons of waste called "valley fills". Mountains become flattened plains or hills with barren tops.

Many not-for-profit groups made up of concerned (read mad as hell) citizens are working hard to oppose such forms of mining. Coal River Mountain Watch is a good example. It's membership works to "stop the destruction of local communities and the environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life, and to help rebuild sustainable communities." Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition is another.

Most of the country is simply happy to know we've got coal. Few care how we get it. Unless of course it is mined in their own back yard and stored near their homes and schools. Otherwise, who cares. We've got government agencies looking after stuff like coal mining. Enough said, right?

Modern mountaintop removal is not to be confused with good, old-fashioned "strip mining". Oh no, strip mining was most tame when compared to mountaintop removal. In strip mining, equipment removed veins of coal near mountain tops, but it did so by first digging circular "necklaces" of flat roadways that allowed drilling machines to remove coal from the edge of a seam.

The earth moving monoliths used by the coal industry today include 20-story tall gargantuan mountain maulers that lift and dump steel buckets big enough to hold 80 cubic yards (in other words, big enough to hold about eight sport utility vehicles)!

Thanks to these marvelous modern wonder machines, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 470 miles of valley fills in West Virginia and 355 miles in Kentucky in 1998.

All of this was done with the blessing of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the military bureaucracy that is supposed to regulate and protect our rivers and streams. Though illegal, according to the Clean Water Act, the Corps granted dredge and fill permits approving hundreds of miles of coal industry waste piles that buried 85 miles of streams in the year 2000 alone!

In May of 2002, Judge Charles H. Haden II ruled that the Corps of Engineers could no longer approve valley fills. This ruling was appealed by both the Bush administration and the coal industry.
One can understand the coal mining industry being unhappy with Judge Haden's ruling, but how can the leader of our nation support environmental rape? This would be illogical, or at least insane; surely not evil.

Yet siding with the coal industry is understandable since President Bush supports the use of coal. In January of 2002 he visited a coal mine machinery shop in Belle, WV, where he chortled, "We need to use more coal. We've got lots of it.".

With this in mind, it would be logical to assume that the President would make supporting the coal industry a top priority. And since the coal industry depends on coal miners, the President would naturally want to support mine workers and their safety. Safe, happy miners are essential to the production of more and more coal, aren't they?

Not all coal is removed from mountain tops either. Lots of it still must be mined deep within the Earth in dangerous, hazard prone work environments

Remember the "Quecreek Nine"? They were the miners who captured the eyes and hearts of the nation when they were rescued from the flooded mine in Pennsylvania.

Bush praised the miners and the rescue workers. Before TV cameras and the press he said, "What took place here in Pennsylvania really represents the best of our country, what I call the spirit of America, the great strength of our nation."

Perhaps I must be crazy, because I don't understand. How can the President speak such eloquent words of hope and promise when his administration has done so much to dismantle the safeguards meant to keep coal miners from dying? How can he in good conscience call for increased coal production when the record clearly shows that since taking office in January of 2001 the President has proposed mine safety budget cuts, halted regulatory improvements and reduced enforcement efforts.

Yet the President is in fact calling for increased coal production. It says so right there in his energy plan, right along side the part about hundreds of new coal-fired power plants. In fact this part of his plan is proposed as the key to our national energy security and even a vital part of the war on terrorism!

Some have said that our President has a nice smile and a vibrant countenance. He gives a good speech and he's a good runner too. However he isn't widely known for having a very deep intellect. Also has a short attention span, they say. So it could be that he just doesn't know coal mining remains the nations most dangerous occupation. He just might not know this.

We all assume the President isn't insane. We know he can't be evil. So he just must not realize the death toll among coal miners has increased each year for the past several years. In 2001, 42 workers died in U.S. coal mines. In 2002, 70,000 miners dug a billion tons of coal. Ten years ago, 120,000 miners produced less than a billion tons a year. Productivity among coal miners is therefore up. But this increased productivity comes at the expense of human lives.

The President must not be aware of this either. He just must not know. Because under President Bush, the Department of Labor, which supervises the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), ceased work on implementing more than a dozen new mine safety regulations. In 2002, President Bush also proposed to cut the MSHA budget and slash the agency's resources for enforcement.

"This year (2003), the number of mine fatalities is poised to be even higher than last year's unacceptable rate," Senator Ted Kennedy said. "These are the tragically predictable consequences of the backlog of necessary mine inspections. This administration has consistently failed to enforce policies that keep miners safe."

The year President Bush took office, Alabama's worst coal mine accident since 1943 took place on a Sunday, usually a quiet day at Coal Mine # 5 owned Walter Industries Inc. Luckily only 32 of 402 workers were on duty. Most were there to fix equipment or buttress the mine's 6-foot-tall tunnels, prep work for a week of excavation. Thirteen men died in a methane-fueled inferno 2,140 feet below the tiny town of Brookwood.

In a letter to MSHA, union officials accused the government of lax oversight at the Alabama mine. But one analyst put it this way: Mother Nature is always causing problems.

Funny thing about Mother Nature. She always follows the natural laws of the universe to the letter. In other words when we go looking for trouble, we are likely to find it. The degree to which we suffer consequences are often a function of blind luck!

These words have proven even more true in recent years. Witness the recent Sago Mine disaster when a supposed lightening strike hit a ventilation pipe igniting built-up methane gas deep in the mine. Twelve minors were killed with Mother Nature again taking the blame.

Was this disaster just another example of a supposedly "safe" mine abandoned to the whims of nature by Lady Luck? Or is the problem more systemic than natural?

To be fair, anyone who thinks there is such a thing as a "safe" mine is out of touch with reality. This said, the goal then becomes making mines and other generically dangerous workplaces as potentially safe as possible. However the current administration seems to have little concern for worker safety, preferring instead to concentrate on keeping corporate costs down and profits up.

The media is awash with stories documenting the serious, repeated problems that existed at Sago mine. During the past two years alone, the injury rate was three times that of similar mines in the industry.

In spite of media interviews with miners who say Sago was completely safe, the owners were cited for over 200 safety violations in 2005 alone. Examples include inadequate ventilation, mine roof integrity problems, excessive levels of explosive coal dust, inadequate use of limestone for fire prevention, substandard pre-shift safety inspections and so on.

Even though MSHA reports revealed "a high degree of negligence for the health and safety of the miners," the owners were fined an average of less than $150.00 per violation. This is especially astonishing when over half of the infractions were "significant and substantial."

Of course none of this can be blamed on the administration. If there is blame, it should go to the person in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. But guess who appoints the director of MSHA?

Right after taking office, Bush appointed David Lauriski, a former coal industry executive, to the job. Director Lauriski felt it was in the best interest of all concerned to downgrade enforcement, preferring instead a "cooperative alliance" with industry. Bush's latest appointee is Richard Stickler, yet another industry manager, who "ran mines with injury rates twice the national average."

Under the Bush administration, MSHA has established a pattern of lax enforcement. The number of major fines levied in the coal mine industry dropped by 10 percent since 2001; the average dollar amount per fine is also 43% less. About half of those are still unpaid. Conviction levels are at 50% compared to previous administrations. Inspectors deemed too aggressive are encouraged to find other work.

When Bush came into office he inherited a plan established by the Clinton administration to upgrade MSHA's mine rescue program. Like many other such worthwhile plans, it too was abolished. Now there is just one rescue team for every four underground mines. The law, however, requires two crews for every mine.

And we've all heard about those Bush budget cuts; it's just part of the price we must pay to liberate Iraq and still find a way to cut taxes for the super rich. Surely MSHA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can live with about five million dollars less in funding for this fiscal year?

Under Bush, MSHA has dropped 17 of the 26 regulations proposed by the Clinton administration and cut 170 positions since 2001, despite warnings from the Department of Labor Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office that doing so would further compromise mine safety.

But President Bush, happy-go-lucky, good-hearty simpleton that he is, ever looks on the brighter side. New technology and machinery is digging coal much faster and with fewer workers. This means potentially fewer work related accidents and deaths! Production and profits are up; coal industry costs are down; owners and shareholders are fat and happy! This is good news for "Murka"!

Too bad the Presidents intellect isn't deep enough to understand that the coal industry production boom he currently fosters and supports is an economic nightmare for most coal mining communities. It's a good thing he doesn't understand that, too. Because otherwise, we'd have to assume he is deliberately perpetuating the dismal conditions that have existed in coal mining for the past 100 years.

That would be a very bad thing. It would also mean that our President is not the very nice man he appears to be. In fact, wouldn't it mean he and his administration are evil?

I can only speak for myself, but it'll be a coal day in hell before I could ever believe that.

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