On Saving the Planet from Us People

Arctic - Walrus bonesBones lay scattered almost as far as the eye could see. It was a deliberate, eloquent memorial to the walruses who once roamed this frozen shore – and were almost eradicated. In the late 19th century, hunters from several continents discovered the free-roaming hordes of these wonderful beasts, who were unfortunately highly prized, primarily for their tusks. One naturalist explained, on a recent expedition I was lucky to take into these Arctic wildernesses, that hunters would gun down a few dozen as they tried to reach the safety of the sea, creating a barrier for those behind them – who would then randomly be killed. Arctic - walruses

The good news is that people from the nations involved realized the damage being done and called a halt – while still enough walruses survived to begin re-establishing their families in the Arctic. And they are carefully protected. When we approached one herd we were instructed to keep a designated distance, to walk softly and talk in whispers.

Early Arctic miners didn’t fare a great deal better than the walruses. With the discovery of abundant coal in the area, the Norwegian mining company Kings Bay Kull Comp. founded the town of Ny-Alesund (New Alesund) in 1917 and opened several coal mines in the area.Arctic - miners It was tough and dangerous work – and initially not even all that lucrative. In a series of tragedies, while mining came and went over the next few decades, dozens of miners lost their lives.

Ny-Alesund is now a research center. It’s a company town (population 30 to 35) owned and operated by Kings Bay, which provides facilities for research institutes from ten countries. It has an airport, a beautifully developed museum and a gift shop where you can buy a postcard to send home from the post office – the world’s northernmost postal address.

In Ny-Alesund, as anywhere else we thousands of tourists visit every year, it is not possible to find the tiniest scrap of litter. This may be because we were threatened with everything short of death by hanging if we dropped a tissue (or disturbed a pebble.) Nevertheless, it works.Arctic - bird on water Those pristine lands remain as Nature intended, inhabited by walruses, reindeer and polar bears, overflown by puffins and countless other beautiful birds of the air.

Now, if we could find a way to keep the entire region from melting into the oceans . . .

Are mines as risky as potato salad?

Coal mines and potato salad? Not exactly equivalent danger. In my house, where the husband involved is first generation of his family not to have been in the mines (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and before that, Cornwall) we keep an eye on these things. The latest disaster brought to light (thanks, New York Times) an interesting reference that offers insight into the viewpoints of mine owners and managers who profess having safety a #1 priority.

The article references an Indiana Gazette‘s overview of the 35-year-old Mine Safety and Health Administration, which includes these paragraphs:

In 2007, the year after a series of fatal accidents that were attributed in part to the failures of seals designed to keep explosive methane gas from seeping between work areas in the mines, federal officials considered imposing a rule requiring mine owners to replace or retrofit all seals, to better protect the estimated 30,000 miners nationwide.

But at a hearing that year, Bill K. Caylor, then president of the Kentucky Coal Association, accused the government of reacting hysterically to the accidents.

“Did you know that 750 people die each year in the U.S. from eating bad or ruined potato salad?” he told federal regulators. “Do you think we could get some new laws put on the books to control these deaths?”

He urged regulators to ignore pleas from the widows of victims who were pressing them to mandate that new seals be installed in mines nationwide.

“The cost of installing the new approved seals will put a lot of smaller operators out of business,” he told regulators, urging them to require that the new seals only needed to be used when old ones were replaced.

When the final rule came out in 2008, the regulators sided with Caylor.

Not to paint all miners and the UMW as saints, or all mine owners and operators as hopeless bad guys, but that old Follow The Money adage seems to fit here. It often fits in climate change discussions whenever mountains and mining intersect, and it surely pops up a lot in safety stories. Yesterday’s Times article ends with these paragraphs:

Last Monday morning, a federal inspector visited the Upper Big Branch mine. He looked over its books, “discussed black lung and handed out stickers,” according to handwritten notes.

He made an “imminent danger” run in the mine, checked for dust collection and inspected the toilet, the notes say. He checked the conveyer belt and the roof, and took air readings in two locations that showed no methane.

The inspector then issued two citations, for an improperly insulated spliced electrical cable and for the lack of an updated map of escape routes in one section of the mine. Then he left.

That afternoon, the mine blew up.