Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Coal: Our Hands are Dirty Too

My wife grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., a city built on coal. I've spent enough time there and talked with enough people to realize, first hand, that the coal companies have never been the best of neighbors.

One of the first things you see after coming out of the hills on the Cross Valley Expressway (Wilkes-Barre is in the Wyoming Valley) is two large, black piles of coal waste. This culm is basically black nothing, an ecological disaster pulled from the Pennsylvania hills that just sits there with no purpose and no hope. The piles act as a gateway to this city that was forgotten by those with money once the coal ran out. It happens that the piles are diminishing, as some discovered useful coal within the culm, but they will never entirely disappear.

Just ask anyone and they'll also tell you about the Knox Mine disaster in 1959 in which 12 died. Frankly, the area was on the decline by the time this happened, but miners dug far beyond where they were supposed to go, all on company orders, and ended up knocking a hole in the Susquehanna River. It trained like a large toilet until it was plugged with, among other things, train cars.

So I wasn't suprised when I first heard that the mining company took a long time to even acknowledge the Sago Mine disaster on the corporate Web site. They have since corrected the problem, but the slow reaction (if true... I can't confirm how long it took) hurts.

But here is the rub. According to statistics on the Department of Energy Web site, as of 2003 more than 50 percent of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. Which means that coal--that dirty, grimy substance for which we send men underground to earn a hard living--powers the Internet.

So when you read more about the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, don't fool yourself into thinking "that's not my problem."

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