60-Second Earth

Keeping Coal Mines from Exploding

Preventing explosions in coal mines isn't rocket science. David Biello reports

Mining is the second most dangerous profession in the U.S., averaging 27 deaths for every 100,000 workers per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That safety record is now blown. On April 5th, 25 of the roughly 20,000 miners in West Virginia died in a tragic incident at the Upper Big Branch mine. Four remained missing as of Friday.  

The explosion appears to have been caused by a buildup of methane . An odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that you know as natural gas. It explodes at concentrations in the air of as little as 5 percent. The incident also could have been caused or exacerbated by coal dust, which is equally combustible. That's why we burn it to make electricity.  

The problem of methane or coal dust in a mine's air is relatively easy to solve. Massive fans at many mines make it feel like you are standing in a wind tunnel. Coating the walls with limestone also can dampen the effects of coal dust.  

Still, Massey Energy racked up more than 50 violations of various safety standards at Upper Big Branch in the past month alone. Those include several for failing to follow federal ventilation requirements.  

Cutting back on coal use could also reduce the danger's of mining. And it'd have a side effect: helping combat a little problem known as global climate change .

—David Biello

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