West Virginia mine explosion

Upper Big Branch Mine, Moncoal, W.Va.
Upper Big Branch Mine, Moncoal, W.Va.

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Jeff Goodell
Author, 'Big Coal'
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; 3:30 PM

Rescuers suspended efforts early Tuesday to find four missing coal miners in West Virginia after a mine explosion killed 25 others in the deadliest such disaster in the United States in decades.

Jeff Goodell, author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future" and " How to Cool the Planet," was online Tuesday, April 6, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest news on the explosion and the investigation, safety issues and the development of alternative fuels.

Goodell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith." Goodell's memoir, "Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family," was a New York Times Notable Book. "Big Coal," is the basis of an upcoming feature documentary, "Dirty Business."

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Jeff Goodell: Hi I'm Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal and a new book called How to Cool the Planet. I'm here to talk about the sad story that is breaking in West Virginia. I'm interested in talking about mine safety, Massey Energy (the coal company that operates the mine) and any other issues related to mining and burning coal in America -- including what the alternatives to burning coal might be. So fire away with your questions!

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Morehead, Ky.: Why can't something be done to stop the abuse of miners by Massey Energy? In the coal fields, they are well known as a company that violates safety procedures in order to maximize profits. I personally know two people who worked for Massey in non-mining positions and both quit because they could not reconcile the safety violations with their personal moral belief system.

Jeff Goodell: It's true, Massey does have a reputation for abusing not only mine safety laws, but environmental laws, too -- especially those that govern mountaintop removal mining. But of course, Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, is a very powerful political player in WV politics, and so he has a lot of sway with regulatory agencies. Changing that means changing political system in WV, which is its own challenge

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Boston, Mass. : Hello, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. It seems just like yesterday that there was an accident in a mine that took the lives of a number of workers. Is there any other industry that compares in terms of work-related fatalities that don't get widely reported because these are generally one-person fatalities (I am thinking of construction, long distance trucking et al)or is coal mining by far the most dangerous field for employees? And if so, what can be done about it?

Jeff Goodell: The safety record of the coal mining industry has drastically improved in recent years, and they should get credit for that. That said, underground coal mining remains a dangerous occupation, especially in places like Appalachia, where the coal seams are getting thinner, more deeply buried, and more dangerous to extract. The key to better mine safety is tougher enforcement of laws on the books -- and that, often as not, is a political issue.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, thank you for taking questions. I am from West Virginia and these accidents break my heart. I know that coal mining is dangerous, but I wonder how much you think this accident and other recent accidents are due to the inherent danger of the work and how much are due to preventable safety issues? Also, just a comment...I feel that W.Va., has been shortsighted in hanging on too tightly to the coal industry instead of looking to get in on the ground floor in the area of alternative fuels, but that probably speaks to the power of the industry in the state.

Jeff Goodell: It's hard to know whether this tragedy was preventable or not. We'll have to see what the investigation turns up.

I think you are absolutely correct about WV being short-sighted about preparing for a future without coal. It is a subject of much debate in the state right now -- even longtime coal boosters like Sen. Robert Byrd had talked about the need to prepare for the end of coal. But the industry still has enormous political power in the state, and so those preparations for alternative future are often derailed.

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Fairfax, Va.: What is the safety record of Massey?

Jeff Goodell:

I'd rate Massey's safety record as below-average to poor. You can tweak the stats in many ways, but the fact is, Massey is well-known to put profits above safety. After the Aracoma mine tragedy in 2006, in which two miners died, the company plead guilty in federal court to ten criminal charges, and was fined over $2 million.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it political influence that enables dangerous mines to stay open and continue to operate? How can this be stopped? I've heard Blankenship has a reputation for violations. This is a critical issue.

Jeff Goodell: Yes, political influence is a huge factor in allowing dangerous mines to continue operating -- or at least to operate in ways that mean they are more dangerous than they would be if safety rules were strictly enforced. How can it be stopped? It has to happen at the federal level, with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which ultimately oversees coal mining operations.

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College Park, Md.: Is there anything comparable but safer than coal to use as energy sources? How far away from mining coal is the U.S.?

Jeff Goodell: Well, there are lots of alternatives to coal -- from sun and wind to nuclear power. But the amount of coal we burn each day to keep the lights on is huge -- more than a billion tons a year, 20 pounds for every man woman and child in the nation. It will take a lot of time -- and a lot of innovation -- to make coal obsolete.

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Arlington, Va.: Did the miners die from the explosion or the aftermath of the toxic gases?

Jeff Goodell: Impossible to say until after the investigation is completely, but methane explosions like this are deadly in tight underground conditions -- the concussion, the fire, the lack of air.

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Washington, D.C.: Homer Hickam, a former miner, is on CNN now talking about it. Safety precautions, inspections, etc., have been enacted and he's saying that overall coal mining is still a safe industry. Do you agree?

Jeff Goodell: Depends what you mean by "safe." To me, it's like asking if being a police officer is a dangerous job. If your beat is Silver Springs, MD, then probably not. If your beat is undercover drug busts in inner city, then risks are much higher. Same with coal mining. Big surface mines aren't any more dangerous than regular construction jobs. Many underground mines are well-run, too. But many are not. And in those, the risks are much higher.

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McLean, Va.: It seems like a Catch-22. The people need the coal mines for work yet it's so dangerous but there's no other work. They're both intertwined. No one wants to shut the mines down. So how do you avoid another incident?

Jeff Goodell:

Very good question. Absolutely true that coal mining provides good, well-paying jobs for people in coal mining regions. But so could, for example, the wind industry. In fact, most studies have shown that wind development creates far more jobs than mining coal -- and it's sustainable, too.

As for how to avoid another incident -- you can't. You can minimize risks, you can police coal operators, but digging in methane-rich coal seams 1000 feet underground is inherently dangerous operation.

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Annapolis, Md.: You said "20 pounds for every man woman and child in the nation." Over what timeframe?

Jeff Goodell:

Good catch! Sorry to leave that out.

It's 20 pounds per day, believe it or not.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Massey was apparently fined $382,000 in violations at this same mine in 2009. Clearly the executives think it is more cost-effective to pay the fines and then any potential damages, rather than make the mines safer. Seems like it's time to stop fining and start jailing the executives making these decisions!

Jeff Goodell:

It's true, it's often a better business strategy to just pay the fines than fix the problems. This is true in many industries, not just coal. How do you make the penalties significant enough? Again, it goes back to politics, and, again, to the political power of coal industry.

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