'The Technology Is Essentially the Same as 34 Years Ago'

J$P Instant Transcript! Brit Hume on mining safety.

From Fox News Live, January 3 2006:

BILL HEMMER [FOX NEWS]: In Washington with our Managing Editor now, Brit Hume, who has written a book called Death and the Mines. Brit, thanks for your insight today. First of all, the topic of your book, miner safety in this country, what was your focus?

BRIT HUME [FOX NEWS]: Bill, my focus was twofold. It was in part about the danger in coal mining. And it was about also the black lung rebellion that broke out in West Virginia after a mine disaster up there, now 37 years ago. And it was also about the timid and weak response of the Mine Workers Union, which turned out to be a very corrupt organization. So all of that was the subject of that book. And what's striking to me, Bill, as I see these pictures and hear the head of that company discussing all this, is that the basic technology, we're a long way from picks and shovels, but the technology that they're using to mine coal in these soft coal regions of West Virginia and elsewhere is essentially the same as it was when I was working on that book. The book was published 34 years ago; it's still the same situation.


HUME: You have these underground mines, and this enormously heavy mechanized equipment that goes in there on, they ride on what they always called the man-trip, which is like a little rail down into those mines. And they operate this very, very heavy equipment, which grinds away at these seams of coal, tears the coal loose from the seam, it's then put on little rail cars and out it comes. And of course you can imagine when they do that, that there's a tremendous amount of dust stirred up. Inside those coal mines, Bill, there's always the danger of methane gas being present. That was the reason why they used to have the canaries in the coal mines, because the canaries would keel over when they inhaled the methane, and that would warn the miners that there was a dangerous accumulation of this flammable gas. In addition of course, the coal dust itself is highly flammable, and can be enormous fuel for explosions. So that is the setting in which these miners work. And of course in addition to that, you have the possibility that the roof could fall at any time. It's remarkable that the safety record has gotten better over the years, but this is what they're up against.

HEMMER: Why is it then, Brit, do you believe, that over a period of 34 years that you've studied this and watched this, that the system has not gotten more technology, or has not gotten more modernized?

HUME: Well there are more efficient ways, Bill, to mine coal that are safer for the miners. The most obvious example of that is strip mining. But the problem with strip mining is, of course, you're tearing away the surface soil and ripping, really, in many cases, you're just ripping the tops off of mountains. And then gouging out the coal from sitting on top of the seams. The environmental consequences of that are horrendous. First of all, you destroy the immediate surroundings themselves. In addition, the runoff from these mines is full of all kinds of toxic chemicals and metals and so forth, and gets into the creeks and ultimately into the rivers, sometimes into people's wells and so on. So there are parts of the country that are pretty open and barren where you can do that without any great environmental cost. But in a place like the Appalachian coal region, which is what we're talking about here, the consequences of strip mining are devastating. So you can understand why they still resort to this underground mining, which has many, many hazards. And I would say to you that although the technology is basically the same, Bill, it's also true that the safety record has gotten better over the years. There used to be one of these big mine disasters--they used to happen all the time. There were mine explosions earlier in this century in which people died by the hundreds. So it's gotten better, but the technology is essentially the same, and the dangers are essentially the same.

HEMMER: Brit, 30 hours into this, based on the explosion, the reports we heard five miles away, that thunderous roar through the earth here at 6:30 in the morning, can these men have survived that?

HUME: It's possible, Bill, that they could have, depending on, as you heard the guy say, whether they were able to sequester themselves, wall themselves off, from the aftermath of the explosion. You get an explosion like that, and the residue of that is large amounts, as you've heard discussed, of this carbon monoxide, which is deadly. You can live with a little bit of it, breathing a little of it, but you can't live with very much of it, and it will kill you eventually. And they only had the ability to operate within that atmosphere for a brief period of time, because those devices they use that purify the air only last, what, ten hours, something like that, maybe not that long. So they still may have been able to get to a part of the mine which was unaffected by this. And there are signs that the explosion didn't permeate the whole mine. You heard the mine operator, the company chief, talking about that. So there's reason to hope here, but until they get some sign of life obviously, you have to conclude that those men down there were in very great danger indeed.

HEMMER: Thanks, Brit. Death and the Mines, the author, written 34 years ago, Brit Hume.

posted: Tue - January 3, 2006 at 01:09 PM       j$p  send