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The Case for Regulating Safety

Last week, J. Davitt McAteer, the top mine regulator during the Clinton administration, released his long-awaited report on last year's tragedy at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. The report details the conclusions of a 13-month long independent investigation into the mine disaster, and the role that the mine operator, Massey Energy, played.

The conclusion, recapped by the Wall Street Journal: "the accident could have been prevented and was primarily the result of the failure of the company's safety systems, as well as inadequate oversight by federal and state regulators."

The incident was particularly poignant for me since my paternal grandfather was, for a time during the early part of last century, a West Virginia coal miner. An immigrant from southern Italy, he went to work in the mines after the general store he owned in West Virginia coal country was torched by arsonists. My dad would tell us stories about growing up around the coal mines and the perils that accompanied miners' daily lives. In the late 1930's Francesco Yaquinto packed up his rather large family and headed west for better opportunities in Detroit's auto factories. Other relatives stayed and continue to mine coal today.

Safety violations don't mean coal mining can't be safe

Let's not take the conclusion to mean that coal mining can't be safe. In his conclusion, McAteer lists examples of "times when this country rolled up its sleeves and went to work with a steely determination to improve workplace conditions." Improvements that included "quarterly inspections of underground coal mines, imminent danger withdrawal orders, greatly expanded miners' rights, respirable dust limits and mandatory minimum hours of safety training for miners...This tells us we can mine coal safely in this country," McAteer writes.

I'll leave it to the many others who are already doing so to opine on the regulatory reforms that might be necessary to prevent another disaster like the one at Upper Big Branch. Instead, I want to focus on the idea that a coal mine tragedy in West Virginia, or a nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, or exploding water wells in Texas doesn't mean that we shouldn't mine coal, or generate power with nuclear reactors, or use fracking as a method of extracting natural gas.

They do mean that we need to do a much better job of generating energy safely and cleanly.

"Now it's not that drillers should never be fracking / But the current regulation is severely lacking"

I blogged last year about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as a method of natural gas extraction. Though a 2004 study by the EPA found this method of extracting natural gas from subterranean shale to be safe, in many communities it has been anything but - in some cases fracking has polluted groundwater so severely that people can literally ignite the water coming out of the tap.

Earlier this month Secretary of Energy Steven Chu appointed a panel of seven scientific and environmental leaders to study fracking and to make recommendations about how it can be done more cleanly and more safely. As the panel deliberates, let's remember that it may indeed be possible to extract natural gas in this way cleanly and safely ("Stop fracking!" is not the inevitable conclusion).

New York Times contributor Andrew Revkin wrote a piece to that effect earlier this week. He pointed to a very entertaining music video that recounts the hazards of fracking but also points out: "Now it's not that drillers should never be fracking / But the current regulation is severely lacking / Reduce the toxins, contain the gas and wastewater / And the people won't get sick and the planet won't get hotter." (Watch the music video and read the rest of the lyrics here.)

Last month I blogged about the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant - the result of a tsunami that knocked out both the principal and back-up power sources that pump the water that cools the reactors. At the time, I said we should not focus on the importance of nuclear in our energy generation portfolio (it provides 20% of the nation's power, and 70% of our carbon-free power) "because it sounds like we're sacrificing safety for necessity - and I don't think that's being done at all."

Now is a good time to start that conversation, about all of the ways we can ensure that our energy generation - be it coal, natural gas, or nuclear - is safe and clean. The fact is that we can do coal mining, fracking, and nuclear power generation safely as long as we commit to safety as a priority. And, yes, regulation is necessary to ensure that companies like Massey Energy don't put profits before the safety of the people who work for them and live in the areas where they operate.


Written on Monday, 23 May 2011 17:16 by Gary Yaquinto

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