I was raised among British coal folk. My grandfather was a coal miner who hacked at the coal seam with a pickaxe for much of his life. I went to school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which inspired the famous phrase "coals to Newcastle." In my youth, the rivers ran black with coal dust.
Today I work mostly in the energy arena, and have grown to know the people of America’s coal country. They are not very different from the people I knew growing up, with one exception:
The people who run the coal companies are not faceless government bureaucrats, as they were in the Britain of my youth. They are coal people themselves, with nothing but admiration and the deepest respect for the men and women who work for them.
Indeed, as my colleague Chris Horner has pointed out:
"Speak with any coal executive and he will in short order bring your attention to his company’s work force as the lifeblood that keeps his business, industry, and nation afloat — as heroes, who deserve our respect and admiration. I have never encountered similar initiative and passion with any other industry, and my experience tells me the homage is more than deserved."
Coal mining is a difficult job, just as it was in my grandfather’s time. The conditions are harsh and danger is ever present, which is why the wages for coal miners are often the best-paying jobs in many regions. Because of the remoteness of many mines, coal mining is central to most mining communities, rather than just one industry among many. Close the mines abruptly and those communities die.
This happened in my homeland, because the mines had been kept going long past their natural lives due to labor union pressure. There was no gradual closure of a mine and the chance for a community to reinvent itself. Instead, mines were closed all at once, by government fiat that had become necessary.
Easington, in County Durham, a coal town of long standing, is now the second most deprived community in mainland Britain, dependent on welfare, with the highest rate of childhood obesity. For those who argue that coal mines are a problem, this is what their most favored solutions will entail.
So whenever tragedy strikes a mining town as it does and as it has since the beginning of the industry, it’s important to keep in mind that the people of coal country are not villains. Cynical exploitation of a disaster by anti-mining activists is no help to mining communities.
By opposing mountaintop removal and the operation of private property rights that are the workable solution to the pollution problem, they have helped ensure that coal miners must operate underground, in conditions of great risk, rather than outdoors.
We must remember that mining underground is an inherently dangerous activity, with the constant risk of explosion. That risk has been mitigated considerably as the nation’s wealth has increased over the past hundred years, but it still remains.
Indeed, 2009 saw a record low in mining deaths, with 1.3 fatalities per 10,000 miners. That rate is lower than that of the agriculture industry and about level with transportation, neither of which is the target of calls for its abolition as a result.
Ultimately, the latest deaths occurred because of an explosion. We need only look to the words of the Pitman’s Poet, Thomas Armstrong, to see how ever present those are in mines. In 1882, Armstrong wrote a moving ballad about the Trimdon Grange Disaster:
God protect the lonely widow,
Help to raise each drooping head;
Be a father to the orphans,
Never let them cry for bread.
Death will pay us all a visit,
They have only gone before;
We may meet the Trimdon victims
Where explosions are no more.
Indeed, God bless the people of Montcoal, W.Va., and similar communities around the world. The perilous work they do underpins the work the rest of us do, and makes our nation richer, safer and freer. For that they should be remembered not as victims, but heroes.