The terrible conclusion Wednesday morning to the search for survivors of an explosion at a West Virginia coal mine is a tragic reminder that, despite enormous advances in training and safety equipment in recent years and oversight by both state and federal governments underground coal mining remains a dangerous and potentially deadly occupation.
After waiting since Monday for word of the fate of 13 miners trapped in an International Coal Group mine near Tallmansville, W. Va., and initially believing all had been found alive, the families and friends of 12 of the trapped miners were informed all had died. Only one of the 13 was taken out of the mine alive.
Once the funerals are over, an investigation will begin into what set off the underground explosion and what could have prevented it.
Already we know that the Tallmansville mine had been cited repeatedly for safety violations over the last year. And we now learn that International Coal Group operates six mines in Breathitt and Knott counties, mines that were cited 282 times for violations in 2005 with fines totaling more than $21,000.
Some of the Kentucky violations included improper ventilation, inadequate roof support and unsafe electrical equipment any one of which could lead to a deadly mine cave-in or explosion.
In fact, according to the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, mine inspectors issued 54 temporary orders closing ICG mines because of safety problems.
With heating oil and natural gas prices at historic highs across the United States, coal suddenly is a hot commodity. That means more mines underground and strip mines will be opened, and existing mines will feel pressure to produce as much coal as possible this winter.
And in some of those mines, safety will become secondary to production.
Thats why state regulators in Kentucky must be especially vigilant in carrying out their life-or-death responsibilities. Those grieving families in West Virginia just as easily could be grieving families in Kentucky the next time something goes terribly wrong two miles underground.