Three Chinese Miners Rescued, Three Perish, Three Missing: The Cost of Coal

Three Chinese miners were rescued today after spending 60 hours trapped in a mine due to underground flooding.  Unfortunately three of their colleagues died in the incident, and three others are still missing.

Xinhua News Agency says the three were lifted to safety from the mine in Guizhou province’s Weng’an county early Monday. They have been hospitalized in stable condition. Three other miners remain missing.

The mine flooded at around 10 p.m. Friday, trapping nine miners. Rescuers on Sunday had been waiting for the water level to recede before entering the shaft.

Xinhua says police have detained eight people in the ongoing investigation.

China’s mines have long been the world’s deadliest. Safety improvements have reduced deaths in recent years, but regulations are often ignored and accidents are still common. [ ]

Mining accidents happen all the time around the world; back in 2004 it was estimated that 20,000 miners were dying a year just in China due to the massive demand for coal.  Tales of heroic feats of survival often stem from such accidents.  In 2006 Grant Webb and Todd Russel were trapped a kilometer beneath the ground in New Zealand, enduring broken bodies trapped in rubble and the brink of insanity before they were at last rescued.  Their situation had become so bleak that the explosions they heard; rescuers clearing a path, were in their minds an enemy coming to finish them off.

Who can forget in October of 2010 the  33 Chilean miners who were rescued after a harrowing ordeal, spending 69 days 600 meters beneath the Earth before getting rescued.   The world watched in awe, enthralled after being captivated by the story for over two months, as the miners, one by one, were lifted back to the surface to breathe the fresh air we so often take for granted every moment of our lives.

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Miner Fatalities, accidents and black lung disease
Miner fatalities due to accidents in black lung disease inside the USA between 1998 to 2004. Source: NIOSH 2007 report for CDC Credit: Stephanie d’Otreppe/NPR

Mine collapses are horrific and draw media attention, but the percentage of fatalities relating to such incidents pales in comparison to the fatalities from black lung disease.  When a miner struggles to draw each breath, and succumbs to a long drawn out process of suffocation, no one knows but those closest to them.

The graph to the right relates to to the US between 1998 to 2004.  It shows that the number of deaths – in yellow – relating to accidents pales dramatically in comparison to fatalities relating to black lung disease.  It too shows that the number of black lung related fatalities is on a steady decline, a trend that unfortunately has not continued thereafter.

It isn’t exactly clear why there was a rise in black lung cases after a number of decades of decline, but Attfield says there are a number of possible explanations. Although the rate of black lung is going up, there are fewer miners with the disease.

Indeed, fewer miners are needed in an industry that has become increasingly high-tech. Coal production continues to climb even with fewer miners. “Production has gone very high compared to the old days,” Attfield says. “When you’re producing a lot of coal, you’re making a lot of dust.”

Not only is there more dust, but those miners also are working longer hours, he says. If they’re working a 12-hour shift instead of an 8-hour shift, he says, that’s 50 percent more coal dust. It also means there’s less time away from the mine to cough the coal dust out of their lungs. [ ]

 Why Be a Miner?

Miners here Australia get paid quite well, and the incidents are few in comparison to most other countries.  In developing countries, though the pay might not be quite up to par, it is still higher than many jobs yield in struggling economies, and for some it represents the only observable opportunity to support their family.  I commend anyone who can endure traveling hundreds, or even thousands of feet beneath the Earth’s surface to do hard labor for a living.  It’s not for my tastes; i’m not terribly claustrophobic, but under such circumstances I just might be.

If you watch enough global news it won’t belong before you hear about the next mine collapse.  Some miners are fortunate enough to be rescued while others are not.  But for every fatality due to a tragic incident you hear about, there’s hundreds more who go silently to their graves from lung diseases.  It’s one of the costs of using coal as energy.  One of the costs of doing business.  Perhaps one day in the not too distant future we’ll rely more on energy from wind, hydroelectric and solar.  That’s what Captain Planet would want.  

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