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Coal and the workers who risk their lives for it
Underground economy

Review by Helen Redmond | September 5, 2003 | Page 9

Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History, 2003, Perseus Publishing, 320 pages, $25.

Jeff Goodell as told to him by the Quecreek Miners, Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith, 2003, Warner Books, 240 pages, $7.

THE BLACKOUT that swept through the East Coast and parts of the Midwest last month--the biggest power outage in North American history--was a stark reminder of how central electricity is to our daily existence. Many of the plants that shut down were fired by coal. Coal--and the workers who do the dangerous work of mining it--are the topics of two recent books, Coal: A Human History and Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith about the Pennsylvania miners rescue last year.

In Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese chronicles the close connection between coal and the development of human civilization. The development of the forces of production depended on finding ways of producing power in order to make steel, which then made a host of other advances possible--factories, machinery, trains.

Freese begins with the development of the mining industry in Britain. Coal was the engine of the industrial revolution in Britain, but a number of problems had to be overcome--such as stopping mines from flooding and finding a way to turn coal into coke to make iron. Scientists invented the piston and steam engine to overcome the difficulties in mining, burning and transporting coal.

Freese also describes how coal transformed the lives of the men, women and children who worked in the mines. Working miles underground with very little light, miners died in the thousands from deadly gases, fires, floods, explosions and roof collapses.

Mine owners in 1800s cared little about the safety of their workers--profiting from the power that coal unleashed was the number one consideration. Child labor was widely used because the tunnels were often too low for horses or adults to pass through.

A parliamentary commission in the 1840s described what they found in the mines: "Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, black, saturated with wet and more than half naked--crawling upon their hands and feet, dragging loads behind them--they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural."

A chapter titled "The Rise and Fall of King Coal" outlines the development of the mining industry in the U.S. Pennsylvania and West Virginia were the center of coal mining, and miners faced similar working conditions to those in Britain. In this chapter, Freese talks about workers' resistance to the inhuman working conditions--including the founding of the mighty United Mine Workers union in 1898, the strike of some 150,000 anthracite miners of 1902.

Freese also documents how the burning of coal has polluted the environment and caused diseases like black lung, explaining how the energy industry opposes most legislation to decrease emissions that harm the environment and people's health because it means investing in technology and equipment and that cuts into profit.

And dangerous and sometimes deadly working conditions are hardly a thing of the past. This fact came to international attention last year when nine miners in Somerset County, Pa., were almost killed after they drilled into an adjacent abandoned mineshaft filled with water. They were trapped for more than three days, their work area flooded with water.

Our Story--77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith takes readers down into the mine with the nine men, and even though we know they were rescued, we feel as trapped as the miners. They survived because of their expert knowledge of the mine, a bit of luck and the round-the-clock efforts of workers on the outside who were determined to free them.

The book discusses how workers were able to get the men out by using some of the most advanced mining technology. Yet, like many mine accidents, this one could have been avoided.

Investigators have released a preliminary report showing that an inaccurate map of the neighboring mine was to blame for near-deadly accident. The question remains why weren't workers given a later map, one that showed mining in the area where the breakthrough occurred, to work with? A grand jury is still investigating.

A year after their rescue, several of the men suffer from depression, seven are on medication and six have filed lawsuits. Two of them have returned to work in the mine. As miner Mark Popernack told the Chicago Tribune a year after the accident, "I'm just glad to be able to see it rain."

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