Thursday 2 March 2006

Fossils long before their time

Mining mishaps climbing the graph
Beyond air, rail, ferry disasters, mining mishaps seem to figure quite prominently in the records of despair and sorrow pertaining to major accidents.
Generally, victims of disaster are unfortunate in that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time; however, for mining; the people who meet their demise in circumstances in which they happen to earn their living – their working environment.
Nowhere, is the anxiety of expectancy and the dashing of hopes more dramatically played out than in the work that goes into trying to rescue miners from a coal mine mishap.
With all other disasters, help can almost immediately be given at the point that emergency services arrive, but in coal mines; determining the cause of a disaster leading on to ensuring safety for the rescuers in an unstable atmospheric environment puts back the opportunities for any salvation.
We all watched in January just after the New Year as 12 miners lost in a disaster in the United States were sought as the news wires vacillated between hope and despair till we all ended up both despondent and disgusted.
No greater lament could have arisen from the events that occurred, than to ensure that this never happens again. Asrecriminations began flying; damage-limitation and politics took precedent over the people affected; one man lies in hospital regaining speech but unsure of his future.
Coal is the future
Apparently, coal is supposed to ensure future global energy security in comparison to the finite supplies of oil. In the 10 years till 2004, coal consumption increased by 75% of which the greatest amount is accounted for in China.
Coal consumption
In an interesting reversal of roles, the largest coal deposits are to be found in the United States and none in the Middle East. One can almost wager that when the Middle East oil reserves run out and gas does not gain ascendancy, the begging bowl for energy fulfilment would be moving in the opposite direction.

A case for Iran
Now, if Iran is seeing that far ahead, their quest for alternative energy sources through nuclear power research and development would begin to make seriously astute sense.
Not many nations would want the world superpower be become the main source of raw materials for global energy needs.
So, if coal so underpins the engine of manufacturing in the generation of electricity, production of iron, steel and cement along with other fiery processes for the production of paper, aluminium and metals of economic value; why is the process of extraction so fraught with safety and disaster issues? See How Coal is used.
Too many disasters
In China alone, which comes third in coal reserves, in the same year to December 2004 there were 3,413 mining accidents which killed 5,286 people and that was the safest year in history.
It makes me breathless, but no where near the agonising death of the many that might have been caught up in explosions or mine collapses, or the slow happy death of those who in gasping for air breathe in volumes of Carbon Monoxide which leads to death eventually as blood and organs are starved of life-giving oxygen.
There is no doubt, seeing the importance of coal to the global economy that safety should become a paramount objective or else that industry would be completely decimated for the lack of expertise and human resources – people would just not knowingly walk into death-traps once they see better career opportunities open up for them.
Another 65 lost in Mexico
Back to the issues at hand, we read that 65 men would have perished in a mining disaster in Mexico. Going from other rescue effort records that it normally takes days to mount an effective rescue; one would suppose miners would be given better survival kits as they wait out the disaster before the rescuers arrive.
The Sago miners only had one hour’s supply of oxygen, those in Mexico apparently had up to 6 hours supply, but if it takes days to mount a rescue, we should not delude ourselves into thinking the attempted rescue is would lead to a successful rescue but a recovery of bodies.
I am not chemistry major, however, one would think we could have some sort of catalytic or meta-morphing converter (shows I am a chemistry idiot, but Hey! Someone should be thinking about this) attached to helmets that allow would poisonous gases like methane or carbon monoxide to be converted to usable oxygen as the miners draw breath.
In such dire situations, the miners trapped, need to be able to participate and contribute to their own rescue efforts; with sealed communication equipment and adequate personal life-support that should run for up to a week.
Never again!
In some countries, the miners’ survivors get some sort of compensation even full scholarships for their dependants, but nothing can pay for the daily fear and anxiety that the families endure as each passing day starts and ends on a wing and a prayer.
If they draw any strength from their loss, and I hope they do, it should include ensuring no further generation would see any career development in going back to the mine but in other endeavours that allow people like me to write about these incidents from a different comfort zone.
I have written about the significance of coal to the global economy and though I am also conscious of the implications to global warming – my premise here, was to balance the importance of coal against safety concerns especially when disasters happen.
Formerly - Coal fuels despair slowly

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