Coal miners around the country are being asked to take time out on Monday to review safety procedures. Federal regulators called for the safety "stand down" after a deadly series of accidents in West Virginia that killed 16 coal miners.
Five times as many coal miners died in West Virginia in the last month as were killed in all of last year. As miners around the state pause to review their safety procedures, Dan Miller of the West Virginia Coal Association says there doesn't seem to be any pattern.
"If you look at the four fatal accidents that have occurred in West Virginia this year, they're very different from one another," Miller says. "Except they all occurred in the mining industry in this state."
West Virginia's coal industry is the second biggest in the country, after Wyoming's. And it's getting bigger. Because the price of coal in the area has roughly doubled in the last three years, it now pays to mine even in places where it didn't use to. The Sago mine, where 12 men died last month, was shut down for two years before reopening in 2004. Miller does not believe the stepped-up pace of mining is compromising safety.
"We completed 2005 with the fewest fatalities in the history of mining in West Virginia. We've had these horrible tragedies to start the new year. But we're no busier now than we were six months or a year ago," Miller says.
But some observers wonder if the push to extract more coal, sometimes from marginal areas, is putting miners at greater risk. Managing Editor Jim Thompson of the trade journal Coal and Energy Price Report says while the deadly run of accidents could be merely a tragic fluke, "you also could say that an accumulation of pressure is only now beginning to be felt. And I really don't know that anybody has an answer for that."
Thompson says mines are under growing pressure to produce coal, because of strong demand and high prices West Virginia's coal production grew more than 5 percent last year, despite a shortage of skilled workers, equipment, and even mine inspectors.
"When you have a sudden increase in efforts to run mines three shifts instead of two shifts, I'm sure the inspection arm would be tested, just as all the other links in the chain would be tested," Thompson says.
After two more accidents on Wednesday, the federal government announced plans to send 100 additional mine inspectors to West Virginia, nearly doubling federal oversight there. The mine workers' union complains that inspectors already do their jobs, but that safety violations are too often treated lightly by higher-ups in the federal government. Bob Friend of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration insists the government is determined to aggressively enforce mine safety rules.
"We are very concerned about what is going on in West Virginia," Friend says. "We will be making a personal appeal to mine operators at every mining operation in West Virginia, to take at least one hour for safety's sake and stand down for safety."
Mine operators say the safety "stand downs" this week and next will not seriously disrupt coal production. West Virginia still expects to mine more coal this year than last.