Monday, April 5th brought tragedy to the families of coal miners after an explosion occurred in the Upper Big Branch mine, where twenty-five miners lost their lives, with four more missing. The mine produced approximately 1.2 million tons of coal last year and is operated by Massey Energy Company. The company is one of the nation’s five top coal producers. In 2009, federal inspectors fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious ventilation and equipment violations at Upper Big Branch. Other violations included failing to follow plans, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and for improper firefighting equipment.

Methane gas is thought to be the cause of the explosion. Methane is one of the main dangers in coal mining. The Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet into this mine every 24 hours. Large fans are used in mines to keep the odorless, colorless gas concentrations below specific levels; if the concentrations build up, a spark (similar to a static charge made by walking across carpet in the winter,) can cause an explosion, which happened at the Sago mine explosion in 2006. That mine is located in northeastern West Virginia. Federal and state regulators have required mine operators to store extra oxygen supplies in the mines since that time. Upper Big Branch miners carry a container of breathable air on their belts, in addition to stockpiles of air containers throughout the mine. There are also chambers for miners to seek refuge in if they can reach them.

Coal mining and the timber industry are the two main industries in West Virginia. Miners know the many ways they can get hurt or killed in their jobs. One miner commented that he had never been asked to do anything unsafe by his employer, Massey Energy. Accidents happen in mining; families draw close to each other for comfort and depend on their faith to bring them through.

Almost one-half of the power used in the United States is generated by coal; more than 130,000 miners put their lives at risk to provide it. Ironically, I had just written an article less than a week ago about Black Lung disease being on the rise. There are so many hazards associated with mining. Americans should be thankful that there are tough, hard-working people that risk life and limb to produce our country’s energy.


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