The excellent site Letters of Note publishes a fascinating collection of historical letters, postcards, telegrams and memos — a great site for browsing. On a recent visit, we came upon a heartfelt letter from miner Jacob Vowell, his last communication before suffocating in the Fraterville Coal Mine in Tennessee. The letter was to Sarah Ellen, his beloved wife and mother to their 6 children, one of whom, 14-year-old Elbert, was by his side in the mine. The 1902 disaster killed most of the 216 miners who were working when an explosion occurred. (Source of the photo and more about the Fraterville disaster).
This letter seems particularly poignant in light of the recent terrible mining tragedy in Soma, Turkey that has claimed more than 300 lives.
Ken Ward Jr. of Coal Tattoo points us to a four-year old report that warned of the life-threatening risks in the Soma mines. Accounts from survivors also give testimony to a lax safety record and climate of fear. And as if the tragedy weren’t terrible enough, Prime Minister Erdogan’s handling of the event and the governmental response to grieving families seems like something out of a Dickensian novel. More recently, several arrests have been made.
In the “people who live in glass houses” department, Ken Ward asks why we can’t do better right here in the U.S. in his post, Why is it OK for mine operators to break the law? Last week, Eric Legg and Gary Hensley were killed at Patriot Coal’s Brody Mine No. 1. NPR investigations revealed that this mine consistently violated federal mine safety laws, but federal regulators say they were powerless to shut it down.
Despite the threat to miners, federal regulators say they do not have the authority to simply close the mine.
“MSHA failed to use an even tougher tool at the Brody mine. The agency has the authority to seek a federal court injunction that would place a mine under the supervision of a federal judge. The judge could then order the closure of the mine if its owner failed to fix chronic safety problems.
But in the 40 years it has had this authority, MSHA has used it only once — in 2010 against Massey Energy’s Freedom Mine No. 1 in Kentucky. Massey then closed the mine.”
On this topic, it’s also worth reading Alan Neuhauser’s article In US News & World Report, Experts: Coal Mining Deaths Preventable. Here’s a key excerpt:
“We have not come up with any new ways to kill coal miners,” says Celeste Monforton, a mine safety researcher and advocate who worked at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. “These are things that we’ve known for a long time and we know how to prevent them.”
Instead, for the fifth straight year, the coal mining industry is once again well on its way to recording more than 20 workers’ deaths this year.
“Very few accidents are act of God,” says Mary Poulton, head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering at the University of Arizona. “Almost all of them are something we should have been monitoring or controlling or dealing with. When these things happen, it’s a tragedy because our systems failed.”