As Hopes Dim in W.Va., Examining a Century of Mining Deaths

BY Chris Amico  April 6, 2010 at 5:56 PM EST

A sign near the site of a mine disaster in W.Va.; Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images The chances of survival appeared grim on Tuesday afternoon for four coal miners still missing after a massive underground mine explosion Monday in West Virginia, according to rescue officials and the mine owners.

Rescue efforts at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine will likely not resume until Wednesday evening. Emergency personnel were pulled out of the ground early Tuesday because of dangerous levels of methane gas in the mine.

The deaths of 25 miners in West Virginia after the Monday blast remind us that history of coal mining is also a history of disaster. Through a century of mechanization, regulation and other changes in the industry, mining is far safer today than it was in the past, but it’s still a dangerous operation when you send miners beneath the earth with heavy machinery and the risk of explosions from gas buildups or coal dust ignition. While each death is a tragedy, the likelihood of catastrophe has dramatically dropped over the years as this chart shows:

Until the 1930s, it was common for around 2,000 coal miners to die every year, according to the U.S. Mining Safety and Health Administration, or about 30 deaths for every 10,000 working miners.

The U.S. industry as a whole is also much smaller nowadays. Employment peaked in 1923, when 862,536 people worked in coal mines (a year that saw 2,462 deaths). Last year, there were 133,433 miners and 18 deaths. This chart shows the evolution of mining fatalities per 10,000 miners:

An interactive database on the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s site allows you explore details of every U.S. mining fatality in the from 1983 through 2009.

As for the mine in West Virginia, Mine Safety and Health Administration officials are still considering efforts a rescue mission, not a recovery operation, but Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship didn’t strike an optimistic tone in an interview with WVMetroNews:

“I don’t have a lot of hope that they’re alive. We always have hope, but given that they’re in by the other guys, and given the appearance of an explosion…I don’t give it much hope. Certainly I’m very hopeful that we get a miracle out of it…but certainly it’s hard to foresee.”

Blankenship defended his company, saying, “Any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated or illegally operated or anything like that would be unfounded.”

“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process…Certainly there are violations at every coal mine in America and UBB [Upper Big Branch] was a mine that had violations. I think the fact that MSHA, the state and our fire bosses and the best engineers that you can find were all in and around this mine and all believed it to be safe in the circumstances it was in, speaks for itself as far as any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated.”

Gov. Joe Manchin explained some of the next steps in the rescue mission Tuesday afternoon:

“Mine rescue experts are working to drill four bore holes to sample the mine air and release methane where those miners are believed to be located. We have been told by the rescue professionals that the drilling process may not be complete until as late as Wednesday evening, as they are drilling to a depth of about 1,200 feet.”

Rescue authorities and the mine owner have already confirmed that 25 miners are dead, the largest number of fatalities in a U.S. mining accident in 26 years.

Because of the dangerous levels of methane, rescuers were unable to check the second of two airtight rescue chambers where it’s possible the missing miners could have sheltered.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd was among the state and federal authorities who promised inquiries into the explosion on Tuesday. In a statement, he said:

“Clearly we must get to the bottom of what happened, how and who was responsible. And we must and will hold those parties accountable… We must reexamine the health and safety laws we have put into place and what more may need to be done to avoid future loss of life.”

According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the mine’s operator paid $168,393 last year in penalties for safety violations, some of them related to air quality.

One miner was killed in the Upper Big Branch mine in an electric accident in July 2003 and another was killed in a March 2001 roof fall, according to MSHA records.

On Tuesday afternoon, we spoke with Paul Rakes, associate professor of history at WVU Institute of Technology, about the complex mix of sciences and technology at play in modern underground coal mining.

“The primary risk to miners — and what is usually in their minds — is rock falls or the collapse of the roof (which have) been the primary killer of miners in West Virginia and the nation since they began mining in the United States.”

Hear our full discussion:

Text by Kellen Henry and Chris Amico; data visualizations by Chris Amico; audio interview by Mike Melia.