My grandfather was a coal miner. The one thing I learned from having a grandfather who was a coal miner is that I never wanted to go into an underground mine, ever.
Don’t get me wrong: I have tremendous respect for the men and women who work in mines. It is a tough, tough job and they are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.
But that doesn’t change the fact that mines become tombs all too often. The most-recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that fatalities in coal mining facilities doubled last year, and a total of 47 miners died as a result of injuries suffered in below- and above-ground mining facilities.
I’ve been in above-ground pit mines – most notably, Phelps Dodge’s copper mine in Morenci, Ariz. – where the haul trucks rumbling down the roads weighed well over 200 tons (big enough to crush a pickup truck like it was an orange) and rock ledges were being blown up in the search for more copper. I’ve been in nuclear weapons facilities turned toxic wastelands where I had to wear protective clothing and a badge to monitor radiation and have my car scanned for radioactivity when I left. I am not a coward.
But if I was one of the reporters covering the collapse in the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Utah, I would have graciously declined the invitation from mine owner Robert Murray to enter the mine and view rescue efforts firsthand. Reporters who took Murray up on his offer experienced a little bit of what the miners must have felt when the mine around them shook for a second or two, leading one reporter to compare the fear level to that of being in a combat zone in Iraq.
That excursion-as-entertainment into an unstable mine was blatantly dangerous and stupid on the part of everyone involved, as a cave-in several days later that claimed the lives of three rescuers proves. Robert Murray, in his effort to prove that his mine is safe, placed a number of lives at risk. That MSHA Administrator Richard Stickler went along with it proves that for someone who brags of nearly three decades of mining experience, he doesn’t have much common sense.
More than 5,700 people died as a result of workplace incidents last year. Most of them didn’t have the luxury of refusing the tasks that contributed to their deaths. Voluntarily taking a risk like the one taken by the reporters who entered the Utah mine is like asking to become a statistic.
Thanks, but no thanks.