Every mine is a mining disaster

Two months and 33 rescued miners later, the mine disaster in San Jose, Chile has come to a close. In what is believed to be the most extensive rescue effort in history, thirty-three miners were individually brought to the surface by a fifty-centimeter Phoenix capsule, from nearly two thousand feet below the dessert floor.

The collapse and rescue in Chile received national media coverage. Not every mine disaster does – even if they’re bigger.  In 2009 alone, China reported 6,995 known mining fatalities; while in the United States the mine collapse at the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5 was the deadliest in over twenty six years.

Accidents in China, Chile, and West Virginia; What will it take to make us reconsider our dependence on a fuel that is not only unsustainable but deadly to the workers told to cut it out of the earth?

The coal industry’s practice of sending human beings to the bowls of the planet to extract an increasingly scarce resource is a global one – and the plight of the coal miner is a human travesty.  Coal miners spend years of their lives underground. Due to the adverse air climate, miners experience extensive lung issues; often known as black lung. Miners, and communities near mines, experience adverse overall health conditions as a result of high degrees of sulfur, carbon, dust and other particles.

The effects of coal mining are far reaching and the idea that the individual miners receive economic benefits for their work – a job that supports his or her family – is a is a ploy:  we’re talking about practices caused by corporate and government greed, not individual preference.  Miners have a long history of organizing to try and change the conditions under which they work, and the industry has a shameful record of government supported corruption and abuse.  Yes miners choose to work, but they don’t choose to work like this.

We can mitigate this damage:  this past month federal officials proposed stricter limits on coal dust exposure in an effort to curtain chronic lung disease in the over 73,000 mine workers in the United States. Congress has also passed legislation requiring mining companies to increase healthcare benefits for miners throughout their lifetimes. 

But mitigation doesn’t address the true scope of the human tragedy – or the fact that coal, as a primary fuel source, is simply unsustainable:  we’re asking more and more people to risk their lives for smaller and smaller results.  The time has come to seek alternative renewable resources to coal to avoid the exploitation of miners and people living near mining communities. 

We know how to start:  because of concerns about the sustainability of fossil fuels, we’re already taking baby steps. 

Last month the go ahead was given to begin construction on the world’s largest solar thermal plant. The Blythe Solar Project, 1,000 mega-watts and located in the Mojave Desert, is expected to supply energy for at least 800,000 homes. The project will provide jobs for thousands of workers in an area experiencing tough economic times. Three other solar plants are expected to begin construction in the same area by the end of the year providing an additional seven hundred or more megawatts of solar energy.

On a wider-scale, the United States government has begun mapping potential sites for future solar and wind energy plants. Areas with solar resources, slopes, specialized roads and transmission lines are being targeted. The potential sites include Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. If approved and funds are procured, America’s dependence on coal mining will begin to decrease.

This dawning of a new age for energy isn’t just about sustainable prosperity – though certainly that. It’s also about the human cost that comes with our resources. Removing fossil fuels from the earth is, in its way, a violent act – and in the case of coal an oppressive system of inhumane working conditions has been made possible by violently robbing workers of their rights.  As we develop new energy sources we must think not only of the cost of the power, but any human costs in its development.  That, too, is part of a truly environmental consciousness.

 – Liz Schreiber

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