Monday, April 5, 2010

Explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine

At least seven coal miners are dead and nineteen more are missing in Montcoal, West Virginia tonight after an explosion tore through the mine at about 3 o'clock this afternoon.  The governor of West Virginia is out of the state but is returning.  The congressman from that part of the state is on the scene.  President Obama has made a statement offering his support.  It is not clear from media reports whether it is believed that the missing miners could have survived the blast.

Coal mining is hard, dangerous work.  Those of us with a mild phobia about, say, tunnels, can tell you that the idea of being deep underground in one and chipping at the walls does not seem like a safe thing to do.  Seventy years ago, a thousand miners might have died in a given year in the United States.  Last year there were just 35 mining deaths. 

In other parts of the world, safety standards may not be as stringent, and the result is more accidents and more fatalities.  Just last week an unfinished mine in Xiangning, China flooded, trapping 153 miners.  Yesterday, 115 were rescued after surviving for a week eating bark and glucose packets dropped through a pipe into the mine.  They are the lucky ones -- 2,631 miners died in China last year.  There are, of course, more miners in China than in the U.S., but the death rate per 100 miners is still about 50% higher in China.

Everyone who lives in a community surrounding a mine knows that something like the explosion today could happen at any time.  You might wonder, then, why people keep going down into the mines or letting their loved ones become miners.  It truly isn't that difficult to understand, however, when you put it in some context.  The death rate in U.S. mines is about 1 per 666.7 million hours worked.

The name "Montcoal" probably gives some insight into the role that mining plays in that portion of West Virginia.  In mining communities, the mines are very often the largest employer by far.  Sons follow their fathers and grandfathers into the mines, and kids plan on becoming a miner when they finish school.  Mining is steady work in those communities that have coal veins below them, and steady work is often hard to come by outside the mines and the businesses that support the mining operations.

All of that is little comfort to the people of Montcoal tonight.  Their family members are missing, and it doesn't much matter if they were paid well or if the chances of something happening to them personally were tiny.  Tonight it feels like 100%.  It is unfortunate that there are probably very skilled crisis teams ready to assist Montclair -- unfortunate because that means this sort of thing has happened before, and people have learned from that experience.  Until those 19 miners are accounted for, however, all anyone can do is wait.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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