Almost a year has passed since the Sago mine tragedy in West Virginia that claimed the lives of twelve miners. Since then, accusations of lax enforcement have been made against mineral companies and the U.S. Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) by activists. Equally strident rebuttals have been issued by industry, noting comparative risks of death being far greater with car accidents or food poisoning than with coal mining. Regrettably the rhetoric has generated more heat than light on how to manage America's coal mines, that have been the ultimate engines of our industrial growth and rise to global economic dominance.
President Bush is concerned about our "addiction to oil" and one of his proposed solutions is to mine more coal. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 repealed the 160-acre cap on coal leases and required an assessment of coal resources on federal lands. In addition, $1.6 billion of incentives were offered to invest in clean coal technologies. Yet very little has happened with regard to regulatory changes in coal mining ever since the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1976.
The Democrats may use their recent victory to make some changes in mineral legislation that usually pass under the radar of popular media coverage. The House Resources committee chair Richard Pombo (R-California), who had proposed an expansion of mining on federal lands, lost his election and will most likely be replaced by West Virginia's Nick J. Rahall who has been a long-time critic of the hard-rock mining industry and a proponent of revising the 1872 Mining Act. On the other hand Nevada senator Harry Reid, the new senate majority leader is the son of a gold miner with strong industry ties and is likely to resist any further environmental health and safety regulations on mining..
It is high time Congress step up to the challenge of managing our minerals without parochialism and a sense of national urgency. The national debate on this matter has been polarized by activists proclaiming the perils of mineral reliance on the one hand and industry lobbyists finding statistical comparisons to make mining accidents seem aberrational. Yet we owe it to the families of the victims in disasters such as Sago to give more measured and meaningful consideration to our mineral policy.
A recent study by Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette published a detailed review that clarifies the situation. Between 1996 and 2005 there have been 297 fatal coal-mining accidents that killed a total of 320 workers. The Mining Safety and Health Administration has fined coal operators more than $14 million but most of these fines have been reduced to trivial amounts in the courts without clear legal guidance. For example, when 13 miners were killed in the Jim Walter No. 5 explosion in Alabama, MSHA fined the company $435,000. A judge reduced the fine to $3,000 and an appeal by MSHA is pending.
The United States still gets more than 85% of its energy from nonrenewable fossil fuels, of which more than a quarter comprises coal. An additional 8% comes from mined uranium used in nuclear power stations, thus leaving us with only 7% coming from renewable sources. Minerals are thus quite literally our lifeline and we often debate about their prices and national security without considering the conditions and concerns of the communities from where they are extracted.
While it is true that extractive industries have become far safer and more responsible than the indentured mines of yesteryears, there are still continuing concerns not only about the extraction but the responsible use of the minerals. In January, we also saw the closure of the Mohave power station in Arizona for noncompliance with air quality standards. This station provided power to 1.5 million homes in Arizona, Nevada and California and was fueled by coal from the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines on Navajo and Hopi lands. The mines have also had to close as a result of the plant closure leading to enormous economic pressure on the tribes.
Communities across America will be confronted with similar concerns as power stations age, mines are depleted and institutional inertia prevents us from looking for alternatives. Making choices in such environmental conflicts is always tough but governments can make such decisions easier through better planning. We need an integrated mineral strategy that considers energy and material sources for our modern lifestyles across the supply chain. Relegating successive mining accidents as aberrations, or maligning minerals as a resource per se are both negative attitudes that will proverbially leave us "in the mire."