Death at the Willow Lake mine

July 20, 2010

The industry's rush to produce more coal without increasing its workforce has led to a growing number of deaths in America's mines, reports Adam Turl.

THOMAS BROWN died in the Willow Lake Mine at 1 p.m. on July 12 near the town of Equality in southern Illinois. Brown, a 61-year-old mine foreman who was planning to retire later in the year, was struck and killed by a 20-ton shuttle car loaded with coal. Following the tragedy, the mine was closed for company, state and federal inspectors.

The mine owner, Peabody Energy Corp., calls Brown's death an accident, but full details of how the death unfolded are not yet known. Whatever the official conclusion of the inquiry, one thing is certain: Brown is the latest victim of the coal industry's corporate greed, indifference to safety, and relentless drive to increase output, regardless of the cost to miners or the environment.

With some 450 employees--represented by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers--working seven days a week, Willow Lake is one of the largest underground mines in the U.S.

Since the 1970s, coal operators increasingly moved to strip-mining (especially in the West) and mountaintop blasting (in places like West Virginia). In 2008 alone, Willow Lake sold 3.7 million tons of coal to utilities in the Midwest, mostly shipping washed coal up and down the Ohio River.

Working in an underground coal mine in West Virginia
Working in an underground coal mine in West Virginia (Chuck Holton)

Willow Lake also has a history of putting its employees' lives in danger. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) fined Willow Lake owner Peabody Energy and its subsidiary Big Ridge, Inc., $230,000 since late 2008 for safety violations. A dozen of these violations were considered "significant and substantial" that could result in injury or death.

Among problems cited were inadequate protections to prevent cave-ins and to stop build-ups of combustible coal dust in the mine air. In 2010 alone, Willow Lake had 34 accidents and injuries. It's impossible to say how many such incidents went unreported.

Prior to the July tragedy, Peabody had called the fines and charges against the Willow Lake operation "inflammatory and unfounded." But Peabody is no more the victim of government bullying than BP.

The St. Louis-based Peabody Energy is the largest private-sector coal operator in the world. In 2008, the company sold 225 million tons of coal and had $6.6 billion in revenues and $9.8 billion in assets. Peabody accounts for 10 percent of all electricity generated in the U.S. and 2 percent of all electricity produced on the planet.

Since the accident, Peabody p.r. officials claim to have grown concerned about the safety record at Willow Lake. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin has also "demanded answers." But don't expect any big changes unless miners organize and fight for them. Peabody owes millions for past fines--and it is not alone.

There has been a substantial increase in mining injuries and accidents in recent years. This year alone, 41 U.S. miners have died. A week before the Willow Lake episode, a miner was crushed by a loaded shuttle in a Massey Energy Co.-owned mine in West Virginia. In April, two miners were killed in the Dotiki Mine outside Providence, Kentucky.

The biggest disaster was the April 25 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that trapped and killed 29 miners. In 2008, 29 miners were killed in similar incidents, and 18 were killed in 2009. Massey Energy, like Peabody at Willow Lake, was guilty of numerous safety violations at its Big Branch mine, including 500 in 2009.


AN UNDERLYING reason for the increase in accidents and deaths is the growing economic and political pressure to increase coal output--without increasing the number of miners or safety measures.

Economically, coal producers have followed the same strategy as other corporations have, using the high unemployment rate as leverage to get a smaller workforce to produce more.

Politically, the Obama administration has argued that so-called "clean coal" is a key part of achieving "energy independence" from foreign oil producers, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies (at both the state and federal level) for the industry.

The U.S. is, according to coal producers, "the Saudi Arabia of coal"--with 25 percent of the world's coal reserves, some 270 billion tons of coal. Coal producers have argued--and unfortunately the Obama administration has agreed--that coal should play a major role in U.S. energy policy.

Even though the size of the workforce is declining--and increasingly concentrated in surface mines--coal output continues to rise, buttressed by a more stable (but rising) price in comparison to oil. The inevitable result has been a rising death toll, which is set to get even worse. The National Coal Council, which happens to be chaired by Peabody executives, is calling for a doubling of coal consumption in the U.S. by 2025.

Indeed, the main concern of the Wall Street Journal following the April Massey Mine disaster was that it might forestall further expansion of coal production.

Similar policies to produce coal in pursuit of "energy independence" were proposed in the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter.

At that time, the Carter administration--in collusion with the coal companies (organized in the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA)--attempted to bust the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union in order to realize their dream of expanding coal production.

The BCOA and Carter wanted to put an end to wildcat strikes in the coalfields. In the 1970s, miners regularly responded to unsafe conditions by going on strike and refusing to work. In 1978, 160,000 miners from West Virginia to southern Illinois engaged in a two-month long battle to fight for safety in the mines and to defend the right to strike.

The miners beat back the worst BCOA demands and even forced Carter to back down from a Taft-Hartley injunction, but in the years that followed the strike, the relative power of the UMWA was undermined as the coal industry restructured--with more and more nonunion strip mines opened up in the West.

To prevent more "accidents" and needless deaths, miners can look to the heritage of those battles. It is better to go on strike than to allow a single brother or sister to be killed for Massey's or Peabody's profits. In 1969, it was wildcat miners' strikes that forced state and federal governments to finally pass legislation protecting victims of Black Lung.

Ultimately, we need an energy policy that puts both workers and the environment before profit. That means phasing out coal and replacing it with wind, solar and other renewable energy sources--while at the same time guaranteeing all miners a new job with union representation and wages and benefits at least as good as they have now.

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