Coal—Still a Burning Issue
DESPITE improvements in the closing years of this 20th century, underground coal mining is still considered to be the country’s most hazardous occupation. Working hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, with thousands of tons of coal, rock, and earth ready to break through the ceiling and volatile gases undetectable by smell ready to explode—these conditions make it so. It has been determined that in America alone over 114,000 men have been killed in the mines since the year 1910. In excess of 1.5 million disabling injuries have been suffered by miners since 1930. The number of mine-related deaths is reported to be over a thousand yearly. One of the causes is the dreaded black lung, a disease caused by coal dust.
“Men Are Cheaper Than Coal”
Although working conditions below ground have greatly improved over the past years, safety conditions continue to be a burning issue. “The mine operators,” said one writer, “have traditionally fought the added expense of greater safety measures as a threat to their production and profit.” “To the operators, men are cheaper than coal,” charged some critics. “The big corporations would rather waste our lives than their money,” added one disgruntled miner.
In addition to the strides made in making deep mining safer than in the past, even greater strides have been made in the mining of the coal itself. Instead of men and boys being sent into the earth with picks and shovels, huge, grotesque machines gouge out from the mine walls as much as 12 tons of coal a minute. They scoop up the loose coal and put it on conveyor belts that take it topside.
To prevent the ceiling from collapsing on the miners as the machine eats its way through the earth, powerful, earsplitting pneumatic drills bore deep holes in the ceiling rock, into which expansion bolts are screwed to prevent cave-ins. To keep down coal dust and to prevent, as far as it is possible, black lung and the dangers of explosion, miners spray the tunnels and work sites with powdered limestone.
For every modern convenience developed and every new machine designed to make coal extraction easier and safer, however, miners have suffered a devastating side effect—unemployment. Where five miners were employed to produce one ton of coal, now with more powerful machines operating in the earth, four of these men could be dropped from the payroll. In certain sections, deep poverty struck. Mining communities became impoverished.
To the remaining employed miners a new issue arose. These huge mechanical monsters were expensive, and mineowners grimaced at the thought of seeing them idle even for a moment. They wanted the miners operating them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The miners rebelled, refusing to work on Sundays. It became one of the key issues in the coal miners’ strike in 1981. This time the mineowners remembered the strike three years earlier that had lasted for 111 days and gave in.
As the year 1984 came to a close in England, it saw that nation in the throes of the worst outbreak of industrial violence in her postwar history—all coal related. Seven thousand striking coal miners fought a pitched battle with three thousand British police in the city streets in what was declared “open war.” Behind barricades of uprooted power poles, the miners threw rocks, bricks, and bottles, and even laid booby traps to maim police horses. They threw smoke bombs, ball bearings, chunks of metal, and nail-studded potatoes, and they watched flames engulf cars they had torched.
“There were scenes of brutality that were almost unbelievable,” said the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had called the strike. Hundreds were injured in these confrontations. From the middle of March 1984, the strike plagued the nation. During that year, work was crippled at 132 of Britain’s 175 coal mines and caused a work stoppage for 130,000 miners, costing the government over 1.4 billion dollars. Finally, in March 1985 the strike was called off.
Enter strip-mining. Geologists in the United States have known for a long time that tremendous reserves of coal, billions of tons of it, lie in vast sheets just 50 to 200 feet (15 to 60 m) below the surface. As the Industrial Revolution accelerated following World War II, and the need for coal to power industry became more important, strip-mining flourished. Blasts loosened the ground above the coal seams, and then huge trucks rolled in and hauled the dirt and coal away.
The people who lived in these regions, however, remembered when the mountains and hillsides were lush and green. But now large, powerful machines, so big that they could scoop up 325 tons of earth with one bite, were eating into the mountainside, devouring great chunks of earth. Underground streams were diverted. Wells were running dry. Wild animals were looking for new forest ranges, and soil erosion developed with the speed of an avalanche as strip miners left to find new reserves, leaving deep, ugly, gouged-out chasms in the earth.
Laws were enacted that required the miners to leave the sites in the condition in which they were found. The dirt taken away to get to the coal must be put back and contoured to harmonize with the surrounding landscape. If trees were removed, trees must be planted. If pastureland was disturbed, grass must be sown. If water pumped from the ground now contained acid that would kill fish, the acid must be neutralized before the water was allowed to enter the streams. The requirements are many and the reclamation costly, but the majority of the strip miners obey the laws. Unfortunately, there are still those who hit and run, leaving tragically scarred land.
Coal—And Acid Rain
Then the rains came—acid rains! It is the most recent burning issue involving coal. When coal burns, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released. When the smokestacks of power-generating plants and other coal-burning industries belch their emissions into the air, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can be changed into sulfuric and nitric acids, which are borne aloft by the air currents and carried for great distances, sometimes thousands of miles, and then dropped to the earth in some form of precipitation.
“Many scientists,” writes U.S.News & World Report, “are convinced that acid rain and acid fog leach essential nutrients from soil and tree leaves.” The problem of acid rain is not limited to North America. “In Europe,” the report continues, “the unprecedented decline of woodlands vitality is being called ‘forest death.’ . . . The devastation reaches throughout Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Sweden. In Switzerland, the decline of forests has sparked fresh worries about avalanches on denuded slopes.”
Anyone who has had a hobby of keeping fish in an aquarium well knows that water that is too acidic can kill fish. And when rains fall with over 700 times more acid than normal, as was measured a few years ago in one eastern state, the result will be devastation for fish. “Hundreds of lakes in New York State and thousands in Scandinavia and Canada are so acidic that fish can’t live in them anymore,” reports Good Housekeeping magazine of June 1984.
And so the hue and cry is being heard from around the world. Acid rain is a mounting problem. Environmentalists and industry are deadlocked on the issue.
Nevertheless, coal is now making a comeback as an energy source. Many industries are converting to coal to power their generators and turbines. Many things can be made from coal—oil, gasoline, dolls, perfume, aspirin, saccharin, nylon, plastics, and a host of other by-products.
Hence, it would appear that coal, with all its burning issues, will be around for a long time.
[Blurb on page 19]
Then the rains came—acid rains. And in their wake dying forests, dead lakes
[Picture on page 18]
Huge machines gouge out 12 tons a minute
[Picture on page 18]
Inserting expansion bolts to prevent cave-ins