The tragic mine accident that has killed 25 West Virginia miners and left another four unaccounted for and trapped far below the surface is just another reminder of the curse of coal.
In southeastern Ohio, eastern Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, coal is an abundant natural resource that has been a staple of the economy for more than a century. It can provide power and heat and light and can help to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It can provide steady, good-paying jobs that cannot be exported overseas for people who do not have college degrees. It can help to bring needed cash and investment to poor areas.
And yet, the curse of coal is that it is challenging to extract. Underground mining poses risks of mine explosions, floods and collapses. The linked CNN article includes a sobering chart of death tolls in American mining disasters, accidents, and collapses. Even more appalling is the coal mining safety record in China, where accidents seem to happen routinely. Indeed, last year 2,631 coal miners died in mining accidents in China. Surface mining, which used to be called strip mining, poses its own challenges. That method of removal of coal has had a profound environmental impact in southeastern Ohio, where strip mining — particularly in areas where early methods were used — left behind a grim, scarred, denuded landscape with tremendous erosion and surface water problems. Many strip-mined areas have not fully recovered, years later, and many look as though they never will.
In Appalachia, coal is a blessing and a curse.