Mining Disasters and Rumor Reporting

If you Google “mining disasters” you get 1.6 million search results (0.1 million more than I got yesterday), with Springhill Mining Disasters leading the list, plus a sponsored link to Public Grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler on ‘Coping with public loss and tragedy’.

I don’t have any coal miners in my family that I know of, but my mother was born in West Virginia’s Mercer County, one of the 11 counties in the National Coal Heritage Area (NCHA) that comprised the Pocahontas Coal Field, and she died in Roanoke, Virginia, headquarters of the Norfolk & Western Railway, which made its fortune hauling Appalachian coal to the port of Norfolk. (My father grew up on a Tidewater tenant farm down toward the Norfolk end of those tracks.)

The success of Southwest Virginia‘s coalfields–lying in Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, and Wise Counties–is inexorably linked to the expansion of railroads and to northern capital. After the Civil War, rail companies expanded westward as entrepreneurs and industrialists opened coal seams in Virginia’s southwestern region. Norfolk & Western shipped its first coal from the Pocahontas Coalfield in 1883 and quickly developed lines through Tazewell to Norton. The Louisville & Nashville built into Norton and the Wise County coalfields by the 1890s. By 1900, companies developed lines that delivered coal from southwestern Virginia to piers at Hampton for shipment to both domestic and international markets. Southwest Virginia coalfields supplied high-grade coking coal to fuel the steel industry and steam coal for industrial and domestic use. The boom economy created by mining in the early 1900s faltered during the Great Depression but recovered during World War II. By the 1950s, many of Virginia’s veins, which had begun operations more than fifty years earlier, were mined out.

Beginning in the 1880s, investors in New York and Philadelphia formed mining companies that purchased large tracts of land or negotiated mineral and timber rights in these rural counties. Before the boom ended in the 1920s, as many as 125 coal camps, or company towns, thrived in Southwest Virginia. The coal camps brought together, often for the first time, miners of different cultures and nationalities. To meet labor demands, mining and railroad companies advertised for and brought emigrants not only from other states, but also from Italy, Hungary, and Poland.

That family history is probably why I spent more time watching Anderson Cooper star in the Sago Mine Disaster than I did watching him star in Hurricane Katrina. (I have family friends down there, too, but gave up on the TV coverage pretty quick.) Anderson now joins Geraldo in my expanding category of instant channel-surf inducements. Just as the most experienced fly fishermen know where to cast for trout, the stars of the 24/7 Disaster News Networks know where to cast for the best rumors. If newspapers were once the first draft of history, the 24/7 TV news networks (and a whole lot of partisan political blogs) are the first draft of hysteria. God forbid anyone should read a little history or provide a little context or verify a few facts before they reach for the smelling salts.

How much more horrible is it for the kith and kin of the mine victims to have to show their jubilation, then grief in front of international TV cameras and microphones?

As usual, the NewsHour did a decent job. When a guest on Tuesday mentioned the 200+ violations the Sago Mine had been cited for, host Jeffrey Brown actually had the good sense to ask how that compared to other mines. The Sago Mine was much worse than most. On Wednesday night, Margaret Warner had the good sense to ask a former mine inspector for historical comparisons.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. How dangerous is coal mining today as compared to the past?

BRUCE DIAL: Well, coal mining today is much safer than it was say even 30 years ago. One of the reasons is that the New Mine Act passed in 1977, which made the inspections, when the inspector goes on to a mine site and they write violations there is a monetary fine on every citation that they write.

Other things, there are new technologies, like long wall systems, coal systems and things like that, that get out more coal with less employees.

Used to, to run a heading [coal extraction site] it would take about 25 employees. Today, a heading is typically run with five to 10 people. So there are less people in the mine.

That left me wondering how North American mining disasters have compared to those in, say, China. Fortunately, the Guardian has already run an AP report on that very point. China accounts for 80% of all world coal fatalities.

BEIJING (AP) – Small, privately owned and worked by moonlighting farmers, the coal mine in central China’s Xin’an County was like hundreds throughout the country.

And, like thousands of Chinese miners, those below ground faced the daily danger of injury or death. On Dec. 2, a nearby river overflowed, sending water pouring into the mine and drowning 35 miners.

In most other countries, it would have been the deadliest industrial accident of the year. But in China, where more than 5,000 coal miners die on the job annually, it went largely unnoticed at a time when a pair of bigger disasters killed a total of 260 miners.

The big accidents grab public attention, but small mines like Xin’an County account for 73 percent of reported deaths. Experts say if Chinese leaders are to make good on repeated promises to improve safety, they must start there. And according to the government’s own statistics, they are failing to make progress.

In the United States, 22 coal miners were killed on the job in 2005 – a record low, according to Suzy Bohnert, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. In 2004, the number of U.S. coal mining deaths was 28.

On Monday, a coal mine explosion in West Virginia that may have been sparked by lightning trapped 13 miners 260 feet below ground.

In China, most accidents are blamed on mine managers who ignore safety rules and hide fatalities, often with the help of officials who own a stake in the mines they are charged with regulating.

The government said this year it would close 7,000 small mines – about one-quarter of the country’s total – in an effort to improve safety. The 2004 China coal mining death count – officially just over 6,000 – represented 80 percent of all world coal fatalities.

UPDATE: Of course, raw numbers don’t mean much, although Chinese workers do seem overrepresented in mining disasters even relative to their huge proportion of the world’s population. I don’t know where to find statistics on the total number of Chinese mineworkers, but the CBC has tabulated a timeline of major Chinese mining disasters since 1990, with the following introduction.

China’s mines are by far the world’s most dangerous. About 6,300 people were killed in 2004 in floods, explosions and fires in China’s mines.

China’s poor record with mine safety is a long one. In 1942, an accident killed 1,549 miners in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in China’s northeast, still the world’s worst coal mining disaster.

For the U.S., I tabulated mine fatalities as a percentage of the mining workforce over the past century, using the MHSA table. Death (and injury) rates have been steadily dropping in the U.S., from 3 deaths per 1,000 workers in 1900 to 3 per 10,000 in 2004. The big drop in death rate between 1970 and 1980 results partly from the decision in 1973 to expand the workforce numbers to include office workers. But the drops since then reflect real improvements.

Year Deaths Workers Death Rate
2004 28 108,734 0.03%
2000 38 108,098 0.04%
1990 66 168,625 0.04%
1980 133 253,007 0.05%
1970 260 144,480 0.18%
1960 325 189,679 0.17%
1950 643 483,239 0.13%
1940 1,377 533,267 0.26%
1930 2,063 644,006 0.32%
1920 2,272 784,621 0.29%
1910 2,821 725,030 0.39%
1900 1,489 448,581 0.33%

UPDATE 2: Among the factors accounting for the improved safety records are pressure from unions, federal regulations, and the increasingly skilled nature of mine work. Here’s a pretty telling response during Margaret Warner’s interview with a former mine inspector on the NewsHour:

BRUCE DIAL: Well, in an area like where this accident occurred, mining is really the only big industry where a person can make a very good wage. The average miner will earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, with overtime, maybe, up to as much as $80,000 a year.

This is in a region where individual incomes average $20,000 a year, and household incomes $40,000. I wonder what the average is for teaching faculty at West Virginia University.

PressThink has a long and thoughtful compilation of assessments of the media coverage of the disaster, with a long and not always quite so thoughtful comment thread.

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