Monday, August 27, 2007

Many more ghosts

You never get a response from the New York Times if you submit a letter to the editor aside from an auto-response in the case of email. On the other hand, they don't want material submitted or published elsewhere so we're a bit stuck. I'll leave it up to them if they want to carry this.

The New York Times had a pretty good editorial on Thursday urging Congress to investigate the recent mining accident in Utah. They feel that some decisions of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) could have played a role in the deaths. In the following letter I agree with them but point out again that the reduced productivity for coal mining implies that even more strenuous safety efforts are needed than those that in earlier years led to reduced annual mining fatalities. So, Congress take note:

Your Editorial, "Unsafe Mining" of August 23, 2007, rightly points out that continuing to reduce coal mining deaths after last year's rise will require greater effort and Congress should look into the specifics of the most recent disaster to understand how an MSHA official died, how the mine came to be reopened and if any official corruption was involved. That Gary Jensen, an MSHA inspector, died in the rescue attempt is very concerning since his experience is lost and cannot benefit the avoidance of future accidents. This, more than anything else, even the upsurge in mining deaths last year, suggests that the MSHA is not able to do the job it once did in reducing mining deaths.

But Congress also needs to go beyond understanding the institutional breakdown in the MSHA to a broader picture that we are moving towards diminishing returns for coal mining. An MSHA operating as it once did may not be able to reduce the number of mining deaths each year as it has in the past. A study conducted by the Energy Watch Group this year finds that in the US the per miner productivity has been declining since 2000 and energy production from coal has been declining since 2002 owing to greater reliance on poorer quality coal. This indicates that at a given level of safety, a larger number of miners must die each year since ever more miners must be employed to compensate for the reduced productivity. The report suggests that outsourcing our mining deaths could not be sustainable since China and Australia will soon see similar declines with only Former Soviet Union countries boosting production out to 2050 but with world production in decline after 2030. So, an MSHA that would continue to reduce mining deaths as it once did would need to work much harder than it has in the past because it will need to protect many more miners. For a grieving agency this may seem like hard news indeed, but Congress must push it to greater efforts. NASA has now returned a school teacher safely to Earth. The MSHA can take inspiration from this.

Relying on depleting resources inevitably means greater danger as the more easily obtained and higher quality portions of the reserves are exhausted. The days of Phoebe Snow and the Road of Anthracite are long past but now we are coming to a more serious turn: do we double the 104,621 deaths that got us from 1900 to 2006 as we dig deeper for lower quality coal or do we go to the extreme to preserve life?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad we didn't shut the space program down after the last Challenger incident.