by Barry Edelson


Mining's Never-Ending Disaster


More often than not, it ends like this


Only a heart of stone could have failed to be moved by the spectacular rescue of 33 miners in Chile last week. Given the awful history of mining and the many lives that this most hazardous of occupations regularly claims, no one could have been blamed for expecting a dramatically different outcome. It is precisely because so many miners die so frequently that the efforts to save these men appeared so extraordinary, and the result so unlikely. In the understandable elation of this unusual moment, we could easily lose sight of the daily misery that working underground remains for most miners around the world.

A few statistics help to tell a terrible story. While mining safety in places like the United States have improved enormously in the last hundred years, many still die and are injured each year, even in "safe" mining operations. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor, annual coal mining deaths had numbered more than 1,000 a year in the early part of the 20th century, decreasing to an average of about 451 annual fatalities in the 1950s, to 141 in the 1970s, and to 30 per year from 2001-2005. Still, from 1936 to 2007, 7,495 died in all forms of mining in this country. So far in 2010, 63 have died, 29 of them in a single incident at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia on April 5. Since 1970, 240 Americans have died in coal mines alone.

This tale of diminishing but still great danger is far worse in many other countries, such as Russia and China, where the regard for health and safety, to put it kindly, is somewhat less developed than in other parts of the world. Just last year, 2,631 miners died in China, according to official statistics, which means that that actual number is probably much greater. And the record of fatalities does not begin to address the innumerable others whose bodies have been poisoned, their lungs destroyed and lives shortened in the process of extracting all manner of toxic materials from the earth.

The extraordinary rescue effort stands in stark contrast to the callous disregard for human life that has been characteristic of the mining industry everywhere, including Chile. One cannot help but wonder whether these men would have had to endure their ordeal had adequate safety measures been implemented and enforced in the first place. But the prospects of imminent death or permanent disability that hover over miners, even where the rules are most stringently applied, make it obvious that there will probably never be a way to remove the danger from this profoundly unnatural and inhuman activity.

Why Do They Do It?

We assume that miners have little choice in the work they do: because people have to support themselves, and because opportunities are limited for the uneducated poor. Since the dawn of the industrial age, when mining began on a large scale, primarily to provide power and raw materials for industry, countless millions have abandoned an agrarian life to work in mines and factories. Little can we imagine, in our urban and suburban comfort, what filthy, ceaseless drudgery a farming life must have been before the advent of modern machinery for so many to prefer working down a deep dark tunnel or in the fearsome, deafening roar of a factory floor. The certain poverty of agriculture, at the uncertain mercy of nature and the landed gentry, must have been dreadful beyond our comprehension if it compelled legions of laborers to choose instead the virtual slavery of mining and manufacturing. We have witnessed the phenomenon repeated in China in the present day, as massive waves of villagers from the agrarian interior of the country have migrated to the polluted but richer industrial centers of the east and south over the last 20 years. Just as in 19th-century London and Paris, New York and Chicago, the exhaustion and monotony of the sweatshop provides a better chance at a better life than the farm, with the ever-present fear of flood and famine. A weekly wage, even one earned at the daily risk of one's life, is more reliable than the rain, even if one has to raise one's family "where it rains not water but carbolic acid from the steel-mill fallout," as Jean Shepherd sardonically described his hometown in northern Indiana.

As we drive our cars on fossil fuels extracted from the ground, text our trivial messages on devices laden with heavy metals, or read these words on a monitor whose components were mined, molded and assembled by people in some of the poorest places on the planet, it is foolish for us to ask why people must still do such horrible kinds of work. As we bemoan the loss of manufacturing jobs to less wealthy countries, we nonetheless wring our hands at the fate of those who do these jobs. Can we not wish for our fellow citizens to be employed in industries that make our lifestyles possible, even hazardous ones like mining and chemicals and construction, and still be deeply concerned about their health?

In a democratic society, there is surely nothing more repulsive than the idea that "little" people must die to build the stage upon which "great" men perform. And yet there is hardly a major building, bridge, dam or tunnel for which we have not made the human sacrifice of laborers who are anonymous to history. Our politicians and businessmen have their photos taken atop the great edifices that bear their names, wave their copies of "Atlas Shrugged" in the bright light of day, while men are asphyxiated miles below the surface of the Earth, soldiers in the capitalist war against the doctrine of the common good. We celebrate the greatness of the individual, though, as George Orwell put it in "Animal Farm", some individuals are created more equal than others.

Reports about what will happen now to the 33 rescued miners in Chile have varied, from the assumption that some will inevitably return to the mines, because that is the only life they have ever known, to the prediction that none of them will ever have to work again. Pity the 34th Chilean miner who escaped with his life moments before the disaster that trapped his co-workers. No book or movie deals for him, no klieg lights or interviews, no escape to the perpetual sunshine of life above the ground. Like his fellow worker-ants around the world, he will crawl back down a damp tunnel day after day, if he is lucky, until his lungs and limbs lead him to a disabled old age. And he will continue to entrust his life to people on the ground whose focus on his well-being is of widely varying intensity.

October 24, 2010


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