In our opinion: Utah's mining heroes

Published: Wednesday, March 27 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Federal regulators are looking into the death of a Utah coal miner killed by a slab of rock that fell during a particularly tenuous excavation process known as "retreat mining." Preliminary reports indicate there were no apparent lapses in safety protocol, or any severe or chronic problems at the Rhino Mine, where 29-year-old Elam Jones died last Friday.

The incident shows that no matter how many regulations are in place, or how committed operators are to safety, mining is an inherently dangerous occupation. And despite advancements in safety systems, it will remain treacherous work, just as it will remain vital and necessary work, despite the rapid development of competing energy sources.

Across America, coal is still king when it comes to generating electricity, but its kingdom is shrinking. The use of natural gas for electrical generation is growing at a rapid pace, while the percentage of coal-fired power continues to slide. Even so, coal will remain a vital component of our energy picture for decades to come, and it will continue to dominate the economy and define the culture in the part of our state known as coal country.

For generations, the people of Carbon and Emery counties have thrived as coal has thrived, and struggled as the industry has languished. Communities there are marked by a distinct ethic that champions hard work and loyalty to their jobs, and to each other. It is embedded in the area's culture just as rich seams of coal are part of its geology.

The man who died was a third-generation miner. His father works in a mine, too, and said he would go right back to work because, he said, he has a job to do. His wife told the Deseret News, "My guys and every other coal miner are the heartbeat of America because we dig the coal so you can have electricity. These coal miners love this nation and love their families and love coal."

The industry now faces pressure to produce more coal at less cost. It's critical this doesn't translate into cutting corners and compromising safety.

The retreat mining technique in operation when the accident occurred at the Rhino facility is used to extract every last ton of coal from a mature mine. It is permitted under law, but miners and regulators acknowledge straight up that it is dangerous. Between 1998 and 2007, 29 miners were killed during retreat mining operations. Six of them died after they were buried during an implosion at the Crandall Canyon Mine in 2007. Jones, who died at the Rhino Mine, served on the rescue team at Crandall Canyon.

The risks miners take on a daily basis they do not take alone. The work breeds a camaraderie unique to those who know what it's like to labor side by side, deep underground. Miners speak openly of their awareness each day when they begin their shift that there is a chance they will not return home.

It is not glamorous work, but it is necessary work, and it is incumbent upon the industry and those who regulate it to make sure that it is done under the safest possible conditions.

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