Human toll another reason to mine less coal
Not only is coal bad for the environment and the people above ground, it's terrible for the folks who dig it out of the ground. The tragedy at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine sadly reminds us of this. If you're a Baltimore Gas & Electric customer, you're probably burning some Massey coal every time you turn on a light.
To say Massey has a "spotty" record on safety, to quote the Associated Press, is to put it mildly. Just in the last year the company has been fined more than $300,000 for violations at Upper Big Branch of protocols designed to prevent this kind of disaster. Violations include "failing to follow the plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up and having improper firefighting equipment," AP says. In late 2008 Massey admitted to criminal safety violations in an accident that killed two at its Aracoma mine. Failures in that incident included not conducting safety drills and faking a record book to make it look like the drills occurred.
But coal mining is dangerous even when safety procedures are followed. And Massey is the company that blows up mountaintops to get coal. Burnt coal spews poisonous sulfur dioxide and mercury into the air.
Some readers objected to Sunday's column on the benefits of newly accessible natural gas from Appalachian shale formations, which might allow us to burn less coal. Yes, there are environmental and safety concerns associated with shale gas, as people pointed out. But compared with those attached to coal, they seem minor. And I don't know of anybody who has died extracting shale gas.
UPDATE: To be clear: This is not meant as disrespect to those who have been devasted by the tragedy. Our thoughts ought to be with the families of those who died and of those who are missing. And to promote shale gas is not really anti jobs, either. The beauty of shale gas is that it's creating tens of thousands of jobs in many of the same regions where coal is mined. And it doesn't involve buying foreign oil. And it's a lot safer.