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The price of coal

January 04, 2006|Bathsheba Monk | BATHSHEBA MONK's first collection of stories will be published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in May.

MY GRANDFATHER was a coal miner in Hazelton, Pa. Over his bed was a colored print, which all the mining families in town had bought from the same peddler, of angels bending over the Blessed Mother's death bed. The bed was luxurious, with linens softer and plumper than any in his poor house, and the death more peaceful than the one he expected: in a mine cave-in, with his head cracked open by a piece of anthracite.

But because it was the heyday of industrial unions, government had forced the mining companies to implement some basic safety measures, and when he was caught in a cave-in in the 1950s, my grandfather lived, losing only an eye.

Over the last 100 years, more than 100,000 miners have died pulling coal out of the earth. If you think, as I do, that after every disaster there is an opportunity to make things right, it's amazing that in 2006 we nearly saw a mine tragedy unfold again. Late Tuesday, 12 of 13 miners trapped in a West Virginia coal shaft were saved. But why did it have to come to that?

No doubt there will be an investigation, which will show that the mine accident wouldn't have occurred if certain safety measures had been implemented. But, we'll learn, the regulatory offices that enforce those measures are old and toothless, and the unions are weaker than ever. Everyone will wring their hands a bit, but after a couple of mea culpas, it will be business as usual.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 06, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Coal tragedy: A Wednesday commentary on coal mining inaccurately reported that 12 of the 13 miners trapped in a West Virginia mine had been saved. In fact, it was later confirmed that 12 had died. A 13th remains in critical condition.

At the moment, that business is getting more lucrative. Applications to open new coal mines in the U.S. are increasing. With the price of natural gas gone sky high, and with the U.S. sitting on the biggest known coal reserve in the world, you bet we're going to mine it.

But there is no pretty way to extract coal. You can tunnel or blow off mountaintops. And with no force to counter the appetites of both the mining industry and consumers with our insatiable greed for energy, coal mining has the potential to be a free-for-all.

My grandfather died, eventually, of diseases caused by years of breathing in coal dust and gases in the mines. He lived off of government surplus food and a monthly stipend from the United Mine Workers because of his lost eye. All in all, he had a pretty rough existence, and he had nothing anyone in their right mind would envy. But he did die in his bed.

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