Coal country: recent tragedies have shed light on the dangers of coal mining.
Students should understand
* why coal is important to the country, what dangers coal miners face, and what is being done to make their working conditions safer.
According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the most common violation in underground mines in the U.S. in 2004 (13.1 percent of all citations) was "Accumulation of Combustible Materials," meaning, mainly, coal dust and loose coal that could catch fire. In surface mines, substandard maintenance of equipment was the main offense, accounting for 18.9 percent of all violations. About two thirds of coal comes from surface mines, which run less than 200 feet deep; the rest comes from underground mines, some of which go 1,000 feet underground.
* CRITICAL THINKING
RECALLING DETAILS: Most of the coal produced in the U.S. is used for what? (More than 90 percent is used to generate electricity.)
MAKING INFERENCES: Coal miner Alan Bates says: "I love coal mining, it's a way of life." What do you think he means by that? What might he see as good about his job? What are the drawbacks, if any? (Answers will vary but may include intensity of the work and community identity as pluses; constant discomfort, health problems, and danger as minuses.)
BEING THERE: Have students find out more about the working conditions inside mines, then create displays to illustrate them. For instance, one student or a team might create a tunnel out of cardboard showing how high a mine shaft is, then demonstrate what it would be like to have to work within that space.
SOCIAL STUDIES, GRADES 5-8
* Production, distribution, and consumption: How Americans' reliance on electricity affects the need for coal, and how that need affects miners.
* Science, technology, and society: What the working conditions in coal mines are, and why some people want safety laws revised.
* Bartoletti, Susan Campbell, Growing Up in Coal Country (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Grades 5-8.
* Morris, Neil, Coal (Creative Company, 2005). Grades 5-7.
* Appalachian Teens
* MSHA Mining Violations
* What Coal Miners go
On the morning of January 2, 13 coal miners entered the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia. They set out on their daily task--helping to supply America with fuel for electricity.
Suddenly, an explosion shook the mine, trapping the men. Twelve miners died, most of carbon monoxide poisoning. The sole survivor was seriously injured.
Within weeks, two miners were killed in Kentucky and one in Utah. By early February, four more miners had been killed in other West Virginia accidents. The West Virginia Legislature quickly passed a new mine-safety law. Governor Joe Manchin urged all coal mines in his state to temporarily suspend production and review safety measures.
Americans were stunned by the tragic accidents. But miners are hurt every day, Natasha Watts told JS. "Only when there's a large number of deaths do people take notice."
Almost everyone in Watts's town of Blackey, Kentucky, works in the mining industry. "When the media leave, these miners are still going to be underground," said Watts, 22. "They're still going to be injured and killed so we can watch TV, turn the lights on, and stay warm."
THE USES OF COAL
About 50 percent of the nation's electricity is generated by coal (see pie chart). The coal is mined by nearly 112,500 coal miners in 1,982 coal mines throughout 26 states, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
More than 90 percent of the coal produced in the United States is used to generate electricity. But coal has so many more uses, said Melanie Light, co-author of Coal Hollow. "It's in toothpaste, shingles, baking powder, aspirin, billiard balls, and batteries," she told JS. "There are 3,000 things that coal goes into every day."
A DANGEROUS JOB
Mining has always been dangerous. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, 104,574 coal miners were killed between 1900 and 2005. The annual fatality rate has been greatly reduced over the years. But the 19 fatalities so far this year show that risk is still a big part of the job.
"Every coal miner knows when he enters the mine that there's a large risk he'll never see daylight again," Alan Bates, a former coal miner in Letcher County, Kentucky, told JS. "I've been where a couple guys got killed. It always hits home."
There are a number of laws on both the state and federal levels aimed at protecting miners. The trouble, some people say, is that safety rules are not always enforced. Critics also complain that MSHA's fines for safety violations are not high enough. Often, companies are cited repeatedly for the same violation, but the problem is not fixed.
In 2005, Sago Mine was cited for 208 safety violations but paid only $24,155 in fines--an average of $116 per violation. "For a coal company, that's a drop in the bucket," Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America, told JS. "They make that much money in profits in an hour."
Amy Louviere, a spokesperson for MSHA, said that her agency must follow strict guidelines. "We cannot ever fine a company so severely that we would put it out of business," she said.
Between 2001 and 2002, the Bush administration rejected 18 recommendations for improved mine safety. But attention on the recent disasters has caused MSHA to re-examine those proposals. Last month, West Virginia's congressional delegation in Washington introduced a tough new federal mine-safety bill. Among other provisions, it would require that miners be equipped with emergency communicators and tracking devices.
"COAL RUNS OUR TOWN"
Despite its dangers, coal is part of the lifeblood of the places where it is mined. "Coal runs our whole town," said Watts. "When you come from a town like this, it's the main source of income."
Pride runs deep among coal miners. "I am a brother, a son, a grandson, and a great-grandson of coal mining," said high school junior Josh Fleming of Letcher County, Kentucky, in an Appalachian Media Institute radio documentary. "Coal mining ... has put food on my table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head." JS
"A Way of Life"
Alan Bates began working in the coal mines of Letcher County, Kentucky, when he Was 17. He worked for more than 17 years, until a lung condition called "black lung" forced him to stop. Now a teacher at a mine institute, Bates gives JS readers an inside look at coal mining.
As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a coal miner. When I was a little boy, my whole family were coal miners. It's our industry here. You take coal out of Kentucky, and Kentucky wouldn't be here.
It's a physically demanding job. The actual working area is like a crawl space in a house. The average [mine shaft] height is about 40 inches. So you're going to crawl. You can work days in the mines without even standing up.
Everything is intensified in the mines. You're in a foreign atmosphere. Deep underground, the air is different. The oxygen [level] goes down. The temperature on average is in the 50s, but you still sweat enormously when you start laboring.
Still, I love coal mining. It's a way of life. It's a high-risk job, but you can't live in a state of fear. Most coal miners, myself included, feel at home in a mine. It's what we feel happy doing.
THINK ABOUT IT
1. What everyday products contain coal?
2. What do you think should be done to make coal mining safer?
GROWING UP IN COAL COUNTRY
(WEB) www.npr.org/templates/story/ story.php?storyId=5147009
Electricity Generated in the United States Hydroelectric power 7% Natural gas 18% Nuclear electric power 20% Coal 50% Other 5% by source, 2004 Note: Table made from pie chart.
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|Title Annotation:||NEWS SPECIAL: Coal miners in a mine shaft in Kentucky.|
|Date:||Mar 6, 2006|
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