A NEW NAME, Wilberg mine, has been added to the tragically long list of coal mining disasters. The lives lost in the Wilberg mine fire -- the worst mine disaster in this country in 14 years -- and the many more lives lost in earlier disasters -- are a frequently forgotten cost of meeting this country's energy demands.
The raging fire that forced rescue teams to abandon their efforts means that it will be weeks before officials can determine the cause of the disaster, if that is possible at all. In the meantime, union and company officials will continue to argue about whether the mine -- which only two years ago had an accident rate three times the national average -- had sufficiently improved its safety measures, and whether an effort to set a new "longwall mining" record might have been a contributing factor.
Whatever proves to be the case, if proof can be found, it's well to remember that, no matter how stringent the safeguards or how rigorous their enforcement -- and there is no excuse for laxness in this regard -- coal mining is an inherently dangerous business. The dangers, moreover, extend beyond the direct threats to life and limb involved in underground mining. They include depredations to the land associated with both deep and strip mining and the still more diffuse threats to public health and the environment produced by burning coal for power generation.
The public tolerates these costs, substantial as they are because they are as old and familiar as mining itself and because the most obvious and drastic costs are borne by a relatively small number of miners and their families. Instead public antipathy focuses on the more dramatic threats posed by nuclear energy.
It is not irrational to be concerned about the potential dangers of generating nuclear power. And still less foolish to worry about whether the country can deal sensibly with the radioactive waste products that it produces. But it is not irrelevant to point out that, thus far, no life has been lost to nuclear power generation, whereas many -- including those trapped in the Wilberg mine fire -- have been lost in the process of releasing the energy stored in coal.
This will not be a merry Christmas for the people in Huntington, Utah, where the Wilberg mine is located. While you're enjoying the lights on your tree and the warmth of your home, you might remember that not all the costs of producing that comfort show up on monthly utility bills.