Is Mine Safety An Oxymoron?

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Drills are seen outside the San Jose collapsed mine in Copiapo, Chile, Monday, Aug. 23, 2010.
Drills are seen outside the San Jose collapsed mine in Copiapo, Chile, Monday, Aug. 23, 2010. (AP Photo/ Roberto Candia)

33 miners are trapped deep in a gold and copper mine in Chile – they’ve been there for over three weeks and will likely stay trapped for at least another three.

I just read an absurdly upbeat story by the AP which appears meant to calm fears for safety of the trapped miners. The article describes the air in the mine as “breathable, if hot and stuffy” and “enough to last 17 days or more.” Of course, later in the article mining industry leaders estimate the amount of time it will take to rescue the miners at somewhere between 25 days to 4 months.

If there are no “rock-bursts,” “rock falls” or earthquakes while the miners are trapped underground, and the copper in the water that the miners can collect and drink doesn’t make them too sick, and the “90 degree Fahrenheit” temperature underground doesn’t cook them then they might have a chance for survival. I sure hope so. Too many lives have been lost to mining operations.

Instead of making me feel confident, however, reading this article makes me realize that all of the talk we hear in the news about “mine safety” is absurd. Underground mining is inherently dangerous and guaranteed to kill people. Perhaps Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, said it best when he stated that coal mining disasters are “oftentimes unavoidable.” Blankenship was referring to Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners earlier this year.

If coal mining disasters are unavoidable and mine safety is a joke, then shouldn’t we be re-thinking underground mining in the first place? I am keeping the 33 trapped miners in Chile in my thoughts and I hope they make it out of that mine alive. But I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever see a day when people aren’t sent underground to risk their lives for metal, diamonds, or dirty coal or anything else deemed worth the sacrifice in our society.