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Material World: Coal Mining Insanity

Material World

According to a report released in July by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity, black lung disease in coal miners has quadrupled since the 1980s and doubled since 2002. The doubling coincided with an increase of 600 hours in the work year of the average miner. Over 10,000 miners died of the disease in 1985-94 in the Appalachians alone.

There is no treatment for black lung disease. At its final stage – ‘massive fibrosis’ – even mild exertion causes disabling oxygen deprivation. Victims say they can either eat or breathe, but not both at the same time.

The coal seams in old mines have thinned, and the companies extract seams down to one inch thick. These thin seams are often embedded in quartz rock with a high silica content, which generates dust even more deadly than coal dust.

Hiding the dust

In 1960 Congress passed a law to regulate dust levels in mines. But Big Coal and its bought politicians – such as the late Senator Robert Byrd, who cynically called himself “the coal miner’s friend” – weakened its safety provisions to keep down costs for the companies. They seek to protect corporate profits, not workers’ health. Miners are expendable and can readily be replaced, perhaps at even lower wages, from the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’.

The main weakness of the law as passed is that it lets the companies police themselves. A government inspector cannot enter a mine while production is underway – and that is 24 hours a day! – without the company’s prior consent. When the dust level readings taken by the company disagree with those taken by the inspector, the company is allowed to take definitive new readings at five locations chosen by itself.

Weak as the law is, it is often broken. During the last decade mining companies were cited with over 53,000 violations. Fewer than 1,000 resulted in court action.

Waste stream

In February 2011 the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published a report by scientists from several US universities, entitled ‘Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal’. The authors found that each stage in the life cycle of coal – extraction, transport, processing, combustion – generates a waste stream that poses multiple hazards to health and the environment.

Thus, the release of Coal Combustion Waste (CCW), also known as fly ash, by burning coal exposes people to toxic chemicals and heavy metals known to cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive disorders, neurological damage, learning disabilities, kidney disease and diabetes.

The coal companies do not pay these ‘external’ costs and therefore ignore them. The scientists estimate the annual cost to the US public as at least a third of a trillion dollars, possibly over half a trillion. Accounting for the damage caused by coal gives a ‘full social cost’ double or triple the ‘economic cost’ of generating electricity from coal. Measured against this benchmark, wind, solar and other non-hydrocarbon energy sources are far cheaper than coal.

Greenhouse gas emissions

The authors found that burning coal produces 50 percent more emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2 — the main greenhouse gas) than combustion of an equivalent amount of oil and double the CO2 emissions from burning an equivalent amount of natural gas.

Coal also contains mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, beryllium, chromium, and other toxic and carcinogenic substances that are released into the environment during combustion. Finally, the crushing and processing of coal release tons of tiny particles every year that contaminate the water, air and soil, with consequent harm to health and the biosphere.

Methane is also released in the process of coal mining. It is a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2. Even when methane decays it yields CO2 — a lose-lose situation.

Mountaintop Removal

The coal companies make wide use of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) in the Appalachians. To get at the coal inside a mountain, they use explosives to blast away the summit, together with the forest covering it. The resulting rubble or “spoil” is dumped into the valleys below.

MTR has been used at about 500 sites in four states (Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee), burying 2,000 miles of streams and despoiling 1.4 million acres of scenic natural terrain. In Kentucky alone there are 293 MTR sites, with over 1,400 miles of streams damaged or destroyed and 2,500 more miles polluted.

This reckless vandalism is directed against a region whose rich biodiversity is second only to that of the tropics. The Southern Appalachian Mountains are home to the greatest variety of salamanders in the world, with 18 percent of all known species.

Just say no!

In view of the massive social costs associated with coal mining and the availability of less destructive energy sources, this industry would be a thing of the past if the government, with its monopoly on violence, were not in collusion with Big Business — in this case, the coal companies.

There is not and never was any such thing as a ‘free market’. Government, with its law-making, courts, and self-sustaining monopoly on violence, is necessary to camouflage the tremendous imbalance between the classes and create the illusion of a society of normal human relations.

If we all, every working class person, just said no, we don’t want this anymore, it would be a first step towards the means of life passing into our hands so we could stop the insane forms of capitalist production that have been destroying our world for over centuries.