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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 07:39 am

Coal miners: “Please save our lives.”

The 2006 echo of the Centralia and West Frankfort mine disasters

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Though I knew how the story turned out, as I read I kept hoping that one of the safety inspection reports on Centralia Coal Co. Mine No. 5 would move somebody to action before it was too late. In the months, even years, before that fateful day in 1947, the state mine inspector sent report after report to Springfield detailing the dangerous conditions in the mine. The head of the Department of Mines and Minerals would merely forward the inspection findings to mine officials, who would say, in so many words, that the level of safety being requested would cost them too much time and money. It was their patriotic duty to keep the mine producing at full capacity to meet the energy needs of an expanding economy. On March 25, 1947, bureaucratic negligence received its due, and the luck of the miners ran out.

Here’s Robert E. Hartley’s account of that “Day of Reckoning” from Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters, which Hartley co-authored with David Kenney (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006): “At 3:26 p.m. an explosion occurred deep in the Centralia No. 5 mine, where workers had been hauling coal from the mine faces all day. Below ground, 142 miners either had begun the day-ending journey to the mineshaft or were poised to take the cage to the top. Days later, after countless rescue missions and endless hours of sorrowful waiting by relatives and friends, officials announced the death toll was 111. Eight men were rescued, and 23 escaped on their own. Investigators estimated that 65 miners died almost immediately from the explosion shock. The remaining 46 died hours later of carbon monoxide poisoning, after deadly gases filled the working rooms and passageways. The explosion ignited accumulated coal dust, and that spread the blast to other parts of the mine.” Included among the dead were three of the four men who signed the “please save our lives” letter.

That letter was written March 3, 1946, more than a year before the explosion. A committee of local union officials, exasperated that the state was ignoring its own mine inspector’s warnings of excessive explosive coal dust in the mine, decided to try appealing directly to Gov. Dwight Green. “Governor Green, this is a plea to you, to please save our lives,” the letter said, “to please make the Department of Mines and Minerals enforce the laws at No. 5 mine. . . before we have a dust explosion like just happened in Kentucky and West VA.” The hero of the book is Driscoll O. Scanlan, the state mine inspector, who relentlessly campaigned through his letters and reports to get the mine “rock dusted,” an expensive and time-consuming procedure but one that would settle and neutralize the coal dust. The authors conclude: “When all is said and done, Driscoll O. Scanlan is the only one who fought the good, and long, and ultimately futile fight to save the miners’ lives.”

Mine safety has come a long way in the years since Centralia and its sister disaster, the West Frankfort Orient No. 2 mine explosion on Dec. 21, 1951, which killed 119 men. Could Centralia and West Frankfort happen again? That’s the big question left unanswered by Hartley and Kenney in their strictly historical account. In addition to better technology and better regulation, there are fewer mines and many fewer miners, making big disasters much less likely. Today, just 3,500 miners work at Illinois’ 25 mines, compared with 1930, when 185 Illinois mines operated with more than 51,000 employees.

But high energy prices have pushed coal to a comeback, with seven of the Illinois mines opening in the past two years. Earlier this month, the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette reported that pressure is on mine managers and miners to get coal out as fast and as cheaply as possible. “Miners and mine safety advocates worry that more miners will perish in the process,” the newspaper said. It quoted Floyd Campbell, a United Mine Workers official in Pennsylvania: “Safety is taking a back seat to production right now.”

This year began with the Jan. 2 disaster at the Sago mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners died. On May 20, five miners died in a Kentucky mine explosion. The 2006 nationwide death toll for coal-mine accidents stands at 43, the highest since 1995. In the wake of the Sago accident, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin voiced alarm that President George W. Bush has cut funding for the Mine Safety and Health Administration in four of the last five years, and since 2001 the agency has cut 130 mine inspectors from its payroll. Last month, Bush signed legislation authored by Durbin and others to update safety rules and increase fines for noncompliance.

But those who read of all the laws, inspections, warnings, and pleas that preceded Centralia may question whether the regulatory message is getting through to the coal companies any better than it did in 1947. In 2005, the owners of the Viper Mine in Williamsville were cited for 124 safety violations, 42 of which carried a “significant and substantial” risk of death or injury. The Galatia Mine in Saline County, the state’s largest, was fined $540,000 last year and had 1,500 safety violations. The Wabash Mine, also in southern Illinois, was assessed $383,000 in fines.
In both the Galatia and Wabash mines, many of the violations had to do with excessive accumulation of coal dust.

Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters, by Robert E. Hartley and David Kenney (SIU Press, 231 pages, 2006, $19.95), is available at area bookstores.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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