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Mine deaths

ANOTHER explosion. Another five coal miners dead. Another five families mourn the loss of husbands, sons, fathers.

This time it was in Harlan County, Ky. Preliminary findings suggest that three of the five probably survived the blast, but suffocated before they could get out.

“They need to have more oxygen for them,” one family member said.

Where have we heard that before?

The Kentucky miners had the same type of breathing devices as those used at Sago, where 12 West Virginians shared their air because half their devices would not work. Since the Sago explosion in Upshur County on Jan. 2, many miners have told of difficulty in using these devices. First, they are heavy and cumbersome, difficult to put on and activate in pitch darkness when the air turns to dust in a mine blast. And even if they work properly, they usually have only an hour’s worth of air. Miners can be trapped for much longer.

Like West Virginia, Kentucky’s legislators reacted after the Sago explosion. Kentucky required more breathing devices for miners to be stored underground and better communications, but those rules don’t take effect until July.

The coal industry had boasted of fewer deaths almost every year for some time. West Virginia set a record low in 2005. But progress is not guaranteed. The first five months of 2006 has already been deadlier than the same period for the last four years.

Demand for coal is on the rise. That means difficult mines that had been closed when coal prices were lower may be reopened. Combine that with regulatory coddling of the industry, and it’s a dangerous formula.

The Louisville Courier-Journal pointed out that the Bush administration’s idea of mine safety enforcement is “compliance assistance,” or holding industry’s hand, rather than cracking down on companies that don’t obey safety laws.

We were glad that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration stopped the use of foam blocks to seal mined-out areas. There is some indication that the lightweight blocks may have worsened Saturday’s explosion in Kentucky. They also were used at Sago. We hope this is the beginning of a new pattern of vigilance toward mine safety.


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