My home state of West Virginia has been back in the news this week, and not in a good way. At least 25 coal miners died Monday in what appears to be a horrendous explosion in a Raleigh County mine. Rescue efforts are continuing for four men still missing and the outlook is not good. UPDATE: On Friday night, the bodies of the four missing miners were found.
The first big story of my career was the 1968 disaster at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, W.Va. A devastating explosion and fire claimed the lives of 78 miners. (Amazingly, 21 miners survived).
Knock on wood, no mining accident in the United States has been as deadly since then.
The events at Farmington sparked serious reform in federal and state mine safety laws, including enactment of benefits for miners suffering from black lung disease. And it helped provoke a rebellion inside the United Mine Workers of America that ultimately led to the murder of a union leader and the ouster of then union president W.A. "Tony" Boyle.
In the forty years since the Farmington disaster, better safety laws and enforcement have helped lower the number of deaths in Appalachian mines. So have dramatic changes in mining practices and patterns. Wyoming, where nearly all the production comes from huge surface mines, now accounts for nearly 40 percent of all U.S. coal production. Strip mines, often using the controversial mountaintop removal method, now produce more coal than the underground mines in southern West Virginia, according to the Energy Department. But as this week's tragedy demonstrates, underground mining remains a hazardous occupation, posing risks of injury and death on every shift.
Despite the focus on renewable energy sources, such as wind power, and a renewed interest in nuclear power, coal-generated electricity remains a key part of the American energy mix. Nearly half of all electricity is generated using coal. Politicians from coal-producing states seem destined to play a key role in the looming debate over the administration's "cap and trade" proposal to limit greenhouse gases. So it's important that journalists pay close attention to developments in the coal fields.
Unfortunately, too few do, unless there is a spectacular event, such as this week's disaster.
Among the best on the beat day-after-day, year-after-year, is the Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward, Jr. If you are interested in coal issues (and if you use electricity, you should be), Ward's stories and his blog, "Coal Tattoo," are a must read. He relentlessly shines a light on coal companies, union leaders, environmental groups and other players in the debate over coal mining. His work this week has been strong as usual
This week also sees the premier of a new documentary about coal's role in the future of energy. Being shown at a film festival in North Carolina. "Dirty Business," was produced by the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting and it focuses on attempts to find ways to produce "clean coal." CIR is the oldest nonprofit investigative organization in the nation and our partner in the Investigative News Network.
The Raleigh County accident also has produced good reporting from The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Associated Press, with a particular focus on the safety record of the mine's owner, Massey Energy Co.