On Making Coal Mining Safer, Or, "It's The Fines, Stupid!"

By now more or less everyone is aware that there has been a disastrous mining accident in West Virginia this week. There are many people dead, and at the time this is written it is still possible that survivors might be found.

We don’t know much about why these disasters happen, for the most part, and we don’t really understand how to make things better. Today, I’m here to fix some of that.

By the end of today’s story, you’ll understand a lot more about why people die in mines than you do now—and as an extra bonus, we’ll also discuss a radical new way to bring market forces into the process of making mines safer.

“...Death is still working like a mole,
And digs my grave at each remove:
Let grace work too, and on my soul
Drop from above...”

--George Herbert, Grace

As so often happens, we’re going to need to cover a bit of background: a bit less than half of coal mined in the US is found underground, and no matter how you go about it, mining coal is pretty frightening.

The “room and pillar” method of setting up a mine sounds like what it is: you clear out a large underground space, but you leave “pillars” of unmined ore to support whatever might be above, which could be additional levels of “rooms”, or it could be the mountain itself—but it’s most likely to be both.

“Longwall” mining involves removing far more material than room and pillar mining, and to make that happen the roof immediately adjacent to the mining equipment is braced. Eventually that bracing is removed and the roof is allowed to collapse behind the miners as they leave the mined space.

Here’s a video that illustrates the technique, courtesy of the Government of New South Wales, Australia’s Mine Subsidence Board:

If you can picture a five foot tall, 20 foot wide, spinning cylinder with giant teeth that can move up and down, attached to a low-slung tractor, you have a pretty good idea of what the continuous mining machine that’s used in room and pillar environments looks like.

Longwall machines have a spinning head that travels the length of the wall being mined; as a result these machines can be hundreds of feel long...or across, if you prefer.

The mines are accessed by different types of “shafts”. Some shafts are drilled diagonally into relatively shallow mines. Deeper mines are accessed with vertical shafts, which can reach down 2000 feet or more; additionally, there are conveyor systems, sometimes miles long, that move the ore up to the surface for processing.

So what can go wrong?

The first problem is dust. Coal dust is highly combustible (and the smaller the dust particles in any given volume of air, the more explosive potential exists), and there are lots of ways to create it: the mining machines create clouds of dust as they attack the walls, the conveyors carry dust through the mine, and vehicles stir up dust on the floors, to name just a few.

Once the dust is in the air, in sufficient quantity, any spark could cause an explosion—and just operating the machinery in the mine creates lots and lots of sparks.

(The presence of dust is also associated with black lung disease, but that’s a story for another day.)

The region of the country, oddly enough, has a lot to do with how much, and what size, of dust you’ll be dealing with in your mine, and mines in each District under the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) jurisdiction have their own particular dust characteristics.

It’s possible to monitor the air, in real time, and there are devices that measure how much explosive potential exists in the rock that’s in the chamber with the miners.

Coal dust can be controlled, first, by mixing it or covering it with other nonexplosive dust (finely ground limestone is often used for this purpose), and by getting water on the dust to keep it out of the air.

There are all kinds of considerations that determine how well “wetting” the ever-present dust clouds will work, including the surface tension of the liquid, droplet size, dust size...well, anyway, it’s a complex business, and the results have been pretty hit-and-miss.

There is good news: an experimental “water curtain” system is now coming into the field that offers the potential to reduce dust to 50% of the levels seen with today’s systems.

Oddly enough, no one thought, for the longest time, that dust was even a hazard—until November of 1963, when the worst known mine disaster in history killed 1,197 workers at Japan’s Miike coal mine.

Methane is the second big hazard. Concentrations above 5% are dangerous, and MSHA limits acceptable methane levels in the mines to 1%. The risk, as MSHA succinctly puts it, is from “frictional ignitions”, just as it is with coal dust.

Here’s what the folks at MethaneGasDetectors.com have to say about all this:

“...The problem is that methane is unavoidable. When you mine coal, you expose fissures and pores in the coal bed in which methane is lying. Therefore, you cannot help but release into a confined area a gas that is not only highly flammable with the potential to violently explode in a ball of flame but one that is also an asphyxiant, capable of driving out oxygen and causing death by suffocation...”

You’ll notice methane actually causes two problems: it can kill you if it blows up—and even if it doesn’t, just the presence of enough methane in the air can kill you.

The very imperfect solution here is ventilation—but the “forced air” ventilation requirement can be reduced considerably through the use of boreholes and “bleeders” to vent methane away from work areas using natural drafts.

The third reason people get killed in mines has to do with “geography”.

What I mean is that, instead of an explosion, the mine either caves in or floods; the one usually caused by removing pillars unsafely, the other sometimes caused by hitting unexpected pockets of water (the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania was flooded in just this way).

So here’s the thing: making life safe in this amazingly dangerous environment is amazingly expensive, and the common wisdom has been that if you’re running a mine it’s probably cheaper to let the MSHA folks levy a few fines—and to let a few miners die—than to really do what needs to be done to protect those workers.

That’s why, sometimes, mines consist of two mountains: the mountain that’s being bored into, and the mountain of violations that pile up over the course of a few decades of unsafe behavior—a mountain so large that sometimes even Fox News feels compelled to weigh in on just how bad things have become.

And that’s how we get to the “proposal” part of my proposal.

Now I know this is going to sound obvious: but if it’s cheaper today to violate the rules than it is to comply...well, why not make it more expensive to violate the rules than to comply?

Here’s what I mean: If a mine is missing a piece of safety equipment...say, the amount of ventilation is found to be insufficient...and the cost to mitigate the problem is $100,000...then let’s set the fine at $150,000, per day, per occurrence.

If it becomes known to MSHA that the new water curtain system is the best way to go, mandate that it be adopted—and once again, set the fine for failure to comply at 150% of the cost of compliance.

Now here’s the good part: we do not have sufficient personnel at MSHA to inspect all these mines...but we do know how to get those folks out there, and how to fund them, all thanks to the War on Drugs.

Travel through Texas, or Florida, or Tennessee, and you may very well find yourself being pulled over by a cop who basically earns his living shaking down those he is able to catch with drugs.

Seizures of cars and cash are the motivation here, and many of the drug task forces (as well as quite a few “traditional” law enforcement agencies) are highly dependent on this type of funding.

As you might guess, this creates...aggressive...officers, who are hustling, like crazy, to bring in all the income they can.

Well, I thought to myself, why not apply the same model to mine safety enforcement?

Why not create a “Mine Safety Task Force” that would be empowered to enter and inspect any mine at will, would be free to find each and every violation that might possibly exist—and who would have a financial stake in finding and fixing violations?

Now you might say to yourself that this could create people who cause way too much trouble for the mines—but if your father or brother was lying dead in that mine...if maybe you were next...would you think maybe causing mine owners some trouble they have never had before might be a pretty good idea after all?

One additional step: closures.

In addition to fines, there should be mandatory mine closures (with the mine providing pay to workers during the closure) for particularly egregious violations, or for patterns of the same violation over a long period of time.

What does all this do?

It makes the Power Of The Free Market into an enforcement tool, as it’s no longer cheaper to violate safety rules than it is to obey them...and what Good Conservative Mine Owner wants to tell America, out loud and in public, that they no longer believe in the free market?

So there you go: we now understand why these accidents occur, and we now have a plan that makes it too expensive to kill workers as a cost of doing business, which is a huge change from what we seem to be doing now.

What’s not to love?


let's try making dangerous conditions...

...a bad business proposition...for a change.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965


thanks, james...

...but the way i see it, we already have a massive graft problem in the coal fields, which is why things are the way they are today...so why not give this a shot?

at least we would have a "federalized" group of people to watch over, as opposed to the various state and county officials that run the show now while msha is busy looking the other way.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Make it Safer

Want to make coal mining safer?

Throw the CEO of Massey in jail for murder. (Yes I am serious. If you drive drunk and kill someone you go to jail, how is this any less negligent?)

Want to make things even safer?

Create enough green energy jobs to stop mining all together.

"Keep the Faith"

i'm not against a trial for this guy...

...but it seems to me that we need to fix this before things get that far.

as far as "green" goes: obama announces he supports financing for a nuclear plant in georgia...and i'm thinking to myself "for the same $4 billion, how much could i get with...windmills?"

if i get the numbers correctly, it costs about a million bucks to generate four megawatts of electricity.

multiply that by 4,000, and you get, if my math is right, 16 gigawatts of electricity for that same cost.

california's diablo canyon and san onofre plants, combined, produce about 4 gw with four reactors.

i'm thinking that makes nuclear...well, it seems to make nuclear a really bad bargain.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

I would LOVE to argue this with ya

But.....I have committed to not "get into it" with posters here anymore.

We all (including myself) favor presentations that favor our own personal perspective on a wide array of subjects, nuclear included. I do hope wind energy can progress to be a very real alternative for our energy needs in America. I am totally on board with that.

I am also a nuclear advocate as being part of the mix. So, guess I should just STFU and listen, which I plan to do.

i'd be happy to hear a good math argument...

...for nuclear, but i'm having trouble finding one.

the lowest estimate i saw for wind generation in a quick google was for a new york state project that is projecting a cost of production of 2.5 cents per kwh; with most estimates i saw coming in at around 4.5 cents...which seems to be more or less the same as the cost of production from currently operating nuclear plants; wind turbines, of course, have much lower decommissioning costs and no waste disposal issues.

honestly, if i had to choose how i'd prefer to spend a lot of money boiling water, i'd be thinking natural gas turbine installations, which can produce electricity at less than a penny per kwh.

there is reporting that is suggesting that just the capital cost of a new nuclear plant could be in the 17-22 cents per kwh range, with maintenance, fueling, and other operational costs not included in that estimate.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

I do see your point, Fake

Looking at it from a "math" standpoint (as you put it), nuclear is not our best alternative..agreed. My first choice is wind if it can be further developed to meet our needs. There are good and bad in nuclear which has been hashed over countless times here so I won't go there any further. Most people know now that we have to reduce our use of carbon-based fuels and it appears that so far we just haven't gotten a lot yet out of wind and solar, although I know the technology and use is growing exponentially but that, too, is looking expensive in some ways.

There are new technologies being developed in nuclear that is less expensive with less spent fuel and there is even technology being developed that uses the spent fuel to generate power. Of course, I'm sure those are years away.

I have seen the wind turbines and they're really awesome. To date, they have been disappointing in some areas in that they are not putting as much electricity back into the grid as expected. I'd like to see that technology improved. There's a way, we just have to find it and it will cost bucks to do that, regardless of the alternative energy sources we try to come up with to reduce our reliance on coal/oil etc.

it's a fossil fuel...

...but natural gas is a good option for that "intermediate" fuel for power generation out the next 15-20 years--and it is, by far, the cheapest way to spin out current when it's turning a turbine: about 15% of the cost of either current technology wind or currently operating nuclear, and about 4% of the cost per kwh of "new nuke".

and it's a whole lot cleaner to burn than coal--especially in a turbine, which is a particularly efficient burning environment.

that said, if the department of energy were to place an order for $100 billion in usa-sourced wine turbines, not only would you see a jobs benefit, i suspect the cost per kwh would also drop by at least the conversion value of dollars to euros, which is what the windmill companies are being paid in today...and that's about a 35% differential, at current exchange rates.

even better: that same differential would give us a 35% price advantage over the german and danish windmill producers for any non-european export customer.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

How about this:

For companies like Massey Energy (that owns and operates the deadly mine), who refuse to pay their fines:

Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine, the site of Monday's explosion, is still contesting more than a third of all its violations there since 2007. In the past year, federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine in Montcoal, W.Va. Only 16 percent have been paid.

we stop allowing them Federal tax breaks on their fricking profits and royalty payments.

They're giving us the finger with one hand and holding out the other hand for taxpayer subsidies, and our Congress is either too stupid to make the connection or too corrupt to give a shit.


We need to end the giant tax subsidies for oil and gas companies. Period.

If they get subsidies it should be the same that everyone else gets, for things like offering your employees health care, nothing extra.

We need to go above and beyond for those who knowingly and willfully break the law and end up killing employees.

"Keep the Faith"

I agree with all of that,

but efforts to get rid of subsidies have failed miserably in the past. If we start with those corporations who violate other Federal regs & statutes (not to mention kill people), getting rid of subsidies for all the other fossil fuel companies should be easier. Maybe?


But how many don't currently break the law?

"Keep the Faith"

Probably not many

So we set a precedent with the most egregious violaters, and then start working on the lesser. It might not "kill" the industry outright, but it would hurt them deeply.

Hurt them?

It might. But what it would REALLY do is require that they pay for the negative externalities of their business models. Right now, they profit, while the public at large carries all the risks.

it looks like you're going to get a chance...

...to work on getting those subsidies removed, right now, as the very actions you propose appear to be on the adminstration's "wish list".

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Thanks for the link

Very interesting stuff. I hope Congress gets behind some of that.

i'd like to follow this myself...

...and it's likely to be a future story as well.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

how about...

...if the fine has been fully adjudicated, and you still won't pay, msha and the us marshals come and shut the place down until you do?

imagine if this was a construction contractor who had a decades-long history of uncorrected safety violations that kill workers over and over again.

they would be shut down, immediately, and they would not be working again until things were fixed.

this situation is no different, and we should treat mine owners the same way.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

a lot of that, historically...

...has been at the state level...but there is also a huge problem these days at msha and in the congress that lives above them, and if this is going to be fixed, msha--and the congress--have to be fixed as well.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Heard an expert on coal mining

on TV last night. Damn my bad memory, I think it was Rachel Maddow's show, but he said that a big problem is that the Unions have been busted up over the last few decades and that the Union bosses used to be the watchdogs over the miners safety. I think there are only 20% of coal mines that are Unionized now.

He also said that in West Virginia, the coal is running out so they have to go deeper and deeper to get what's left of lower quality coal creating still more danger.

i saw that...

...and the expert was the head of the united mine workers union.

my proposal to create a "task force" is designed to work around the problem he described by getting a new enforcement "presence" in there that is not financially connected to the mine owners--in fact, they are financially "incentivized" to go find problems in those mines.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

16 deaths

This brings back such a horrible memory

I was in industrial management for nearly 30 years..most of the time being a "front-line supervisor". In my second supervisory job (I will not mention companies here), there was a large heat oven that had a huge mechanical arm that took containers from a wash & paint cycle into a bake oven. The arm, for some reason, stopped. The operator called the electrician who came to look at what was causing the problem. According to the operator, the electrician hollered out.."I've found it" and just then, the arm moved and crushed him against a retaining wall designed to protect people from walking into the arm. His spine was crushed and died still pinned by the arm against the wall. The supervisors were all there to watch the EMT's try to extract him (while still alive) from where he was pinned. The look in this man's eyes will forever be in my memory. OSHA came in a few days later and went through the entire facility and wrote a number of violations. Nothing was said about the death and was determined to be the electrician's fault even though, at the time, "lock-out/tag-out" was not followed and other safety precautions were not followed.

I can say, however, that whenever OSHA came to whatever facility I was assigned both with this company and with others, it was a BIG deal and you could sense the fear by upper-level management. But, as said here, most violations found were masked and were subsequently forgotten because the fines weren't enough to make the companies pay the major bucks to correct the problems.

It is like most other things governmental. If there is lackluster enforcement of laws or if the punishment isn't enough to deter the "crime", the laws are useless.

You're not gonna believe this Foxy,

but I think we worked in the same factory, maybe at the same time (I was there late 1979 through early 1981). The story I was told about that incident was that someone released the air pressure on the arm too quickly, and the blood rushed to his heart and burst it. But that was just a story, so...

Among other things, I drove a forklift up and down that side of the plant for a while on 2nd shift, moving tubs of product to different machines, including that 2nd story oven.


How weird is that? :)

Very weird

And get this.

One of my companies used to be the advertising agency for Kidde, back in the mid 80s. I walked the factory floor many a day, watching aluminum "hockey pucks" get slammed into fire extinguishers. Still have one of those pucks (is that what you called them) right here on my desk.

I think they were called plugs,

but it's been a long time. I was one of the few forklift drivers that could (safely and quickly) navigate all the way back to the big press (Bertha?) where those discs began their shaping process into bottles.


Remember the large press for the 5lb. containers and bigger? It would rock the floor !!

Okay, okay...enough, right?



Did you guys know Joe O'Shields? He was my boss.

Man...is this a small world OR WHAT?? I went from there to Miller in Eden.

I remember Joe,

but I never got to work for him. Wasn't he over Phase II on 1st shift? When I finally got a transfer to 1st (baby on the way), I had to take a spot on the Phase I pack-off line, throwing 12,000 of the little dudes into boxes every day. For $3.75 an hour...

HAHAHAHA...Ah, memories

I was the assembly line supervisor for the portable's. If you came in 1979, I was gone by then. Joe has passed away.

you know...

...i checked in and saw 12 or 13 new comments, or whatever it was, and i had no idea that it was because of a family reunion.


"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965