Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Making a living in the mines

Mining is a dangerous occupation. While the incidences of accidents related to boring into the earth’s interior have gone down, this is partly due to the wane of mining’s viability in the U.S. Coal, the type of mineral being mined at the West Virginia mine where the latest accident occurred, is no longer the fuel of choice that it once was, particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There is also a greater emphasis on safety and better practices.

As with any disaster, the media’s need to sate their bloodlust for tragedy was on display last night, as a surf of the news networks found this tragedy front and center from CNN, to Fox, MSNBC and any other pseudo-news stations. While I could only stomach this in small increments, it appeared that the usual method of mining the misery of victim’s families was the vehicle of choice of the staunch journalists that ply their trade for cable news.

I read Barbara Kingsolver’s revealing book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mining Strike of 1983, two years ago. My eyes were opened to the hard life of mining, as well as the extent of exploitation that was visited on this particular group of miners, but represented mining since its inception. Regardless of the method used for extraction of riches from the earth, the process is either extremely dangerous, or leaves the earth scarred and rarely able to recover. Explosions are always a possibility, due to the buildup of gasses (most notably, methane) associated with the mining process; a spark or other ignition means danger and more often, death.

I read with interest that this particular mine, recently acquired by ICG in March of 2005, had been cited by federal inspectors for 46 violations over an 11-week period. Apparently, the number of violations increased in 2005, from 68, to 205. ICG insists however that it is operating a safe mining operation.

Concerning safety, modern mining would never qualify as safe employment in my book, however, it is much safer than it ever has been, particularly 100 years ago. Much of the safety and improvements for workers have come from being unionized. Miners have always been some of the most militant of workers and have been able to acquire a rate of pay that at least takes into account the dangers faced by them, each time they are lowered into a mine shaft. Their militarism stems in part from how hard they had to fight for some basic recognition of the hazards of their trade. Nowhere was this more apparent than in West Virginia, and its history of poor treatment of miners. Despite the gains that organized miners have acquired, this disaster illustrates the importance of never becoming complacent, as management of many industries will always look to cut corners on safety, in hopes of extracting greater profit from their operation.

1 comment:

Crazy Jane said...

I sometimes wonder what the news anchors tell themselves and what they believe about their jobs.

24-7 coverage of the mine disaster or Michael Jackson -- are they pleased with this? Probably they justify it as giving the public what they want.

I'm a Kingsolver fan. Poisonwood Bible is on my short list of great books. I'll look for the title you mention. Haven't read that one. Sounds good.