In the two decades before the Sago Mine disaster, the rate of major coal-mine accidents more than doubled, according to new research by a West Virginia University mining engineer.
“This growing problem is largely unrecognized,” Danrick W. Alexander, a mining engineer who teaches at WVU, wrote in a doctoral dissertation published earlier this year.
Between 1987 and 2001, the annual rate of coal-mine “catastrophes” — major fires, explosions or floods that could easily claim miners’ lives — doubled, according to Alexander. Since 2001, he found that the rate increased another 50 percent.
Disasters at the Sago Mine and the Kentucky Darby Mine, along with the fire at the Aracoma Mine, have drawn new attention to mine safety problems across the coalfields. This is the first time in more than two decades that the coal industry has had two disasters in the same year.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration defines a mine disaster as any single accident that kills five or more workers.
In his research, Alexander examined mine catastrophes, a term experts define as accidents “in which many lives are lost or much property is damaged, as by a fire, explosion, in rush of water, etc.”
Alexander further narrowed his definition to include only accidents that cause an “unplanned, significant interruption of production that may result in the temporary or permanent sealing of all or part of an operating underground coal mine.”
A catastrophe could be an explosion, a fire or a mine flood. There might have been no injuries. All of the miners got out alive. But things could have easily gone the other way — if breathing devices failed, or ventilation walls were missing or rescue crews didn’t get moving fast enough.
Since the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969, the number of disasters per year has dropped by two-thirds and the severity of those disasters was reduced by 31 percent, Alexander explained.
However, the number of operating mines also dropped, “resulting in no change in the frequency of disasters per operating mine over the last 35 years,” Alexander wrote.
In his study, Alexander developed his own statistic to measure the rate of mine catastrophes. He calculated the number of catastrophes per 1,000 mine operating years, to take into account the reduced number of mines and miners.
Between 1987 and 2001, he found, the number of catastrophes per 1,000 mine operating years increased from 0.77 to 1.65.
“We’ve got fewer miners and fewer workers, and had fewer catastrophes,” Alexander said during a November interview. “But we’re not really doing any better.”
Alexander wanted to study the costs to mine operators caused by disasters and catastrophes. If such costs could be better quantified, he believed, it would help push the industry to continue making mines safer.
“Most businesses respond to things when it affects the financial capability of the company,” Alexander said. “That’s what companies are set up to do.
“Business processes respond to business data,” he said.
Within the coal industry, companies internalize many of the costs of injuries and deaths. They pay workers’ compensation premiums or buy other insurance. Keeping injuries down keeps those costs down.
Mining companies also lose money when production is halted or property is damaged by a fire or explosion.
But because these incidents don’t happen very often, individual companies do not always have good information to understand the potential — or actual — costs.
Alexander studied 18 mine catastrophes between 1987 and 2001. He found that the accidents cost operators between $5 million and $45 million per event. Alexander commented that these costs are “very expensive” and should be “useful to encourage additional expenditure for prevention and mitigation.”