Come and listen you fellows,
so young and so fine,
And seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mines.
It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,
‘Till the stream of your blood is as black as the coal.
CHORUS: It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where danger is double and pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.
It’s a-many a man I have seen in my day,
Who lived just to labor his whole life away.
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine,
A man will have lust for the lure of the mines.
I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner a-diggin’ my bones.
~”Dark as a Dungeon” �by Merle Travis. First performed 1946
Merle Travis wrote that song in the 1940′s, lamenting the fate of the miners in the West Virginia coal mines. It has since been performed by groups of all different kinds, from Johnny Cash to the�Chieftains. With the ongoing events in Chile, a new focus has come onto mining, and the line “Dark as a Dungeon” seems more apt than ever.
Since the collapse of the San Jose copper and Gold mine on August 5, 33 miners have been trapped in an area that the New York Times described as the size of a “small apartment”, 2,300 feet underground. They survived for 17 days without any contact from the outside world, until they were located last week. �Their families have been encamped outside the mine for weeks, and will likely remain there for many more, as it has been estimated that it could take up to three months to drill down and rescue them.
At least they are likely to be rescued, though such hopes are tinged with a frantic caution: many miners don’t make it up alive. 2010 has been a horrible year for those in the mineral extraction business. In April there was the�devastating explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia that left 29 dead, probably due to the inexcusable�negligence�of the mines ventilation systems. It�occurred�just 15 days before the Deepwater Horizon mess, which has essentially�devastated�an already hurting gulf coast and resulted in the death of 11 rig workers. And on May 8 a massive explosion at a Siberian coal mine killed 66, a number that rose recently to 68 as two more miners died of injuries.
Mining, needless to say, isn’t the safest of professions. It requires you to go deep into the depths of the earth, or fly out to the middle of the ocean, where the only�safety�net you can rely on is the�reliability�of your fellow workers. �In coal and petroleum mining, worries expand to include the dangers of pockets of pressurized and lethal gases. In any underground mine dangers of cave-ins abound, with miners inhaling bits of ground rock, and whatever deadly minerals go with it. Not good for the lungs.
The mine in Chile was a copper and gold mine. As such, it was not as fraught with the same hazards as the coal mines of the�Appalachians. There are few toxic fumes, and the cavern is warm, reducing the risk of exposure. There is even a water source in the area where the miners have been trapped. More details will continue to emerge in the coming weeks of how the miners managed to get to their shelter, and what exactly caused the cave-in that trapped them there. The mine has been the site of many injuries and safety violations, many of which appear to have been blatantly ignored by the mine owners. Not a big surprise, considering that the mining operations in the entire country of Chile were overseen by just 20 inspectors. 20 inspectors in a country where the mining industry makes up 20% of the GDP.
It makes for lovely numerical symmetry, but lousy regulatory power over a 33.892 billion dollar industry. Companies in such situations can get away with shortcuts that increase profits and hurt their employees. Even those with the best of intentions can grow lax in an environment where no-one is looking to ensure that they are following the rules.
As it is, the company that owns the mine is fortunate that no one has been injured or killed. While ‘fortunate’ is a relative term for the 33 trapped miners, their situation could have been far worse. As it is, their biggest enemies will be time and their ability to exist in such a confined space without losing their minds. NASA experts have gone on a much-publicized mission to Chile to aid the efforts to keep the miners sane and safe. Psychologists have been flown in to speak to the five men that seem in danger of depression, and any outside communication to the miners must go through layers of censorship. But there are many steps before they can be extracted, and the rescue mission could end up taking the full three months estimated. Trapped in a small dark space with 32 other men for weeks upon weeks with the weight of the earth bearing down exerts a terrible cost on any soul.
Mining is an industry that has many hazards for it’s employees, be they physical or psychological tolls. And as horrible as those may be, the fact is, we can’t get rid of mining. Face it, no matter who you are, you own something made with metal or another mineral that has been taken from the earth. You’re reading this on a laptop made of metal and minerals, sitting at a table which at least has metal screws in it somewhere. You probably own some form of metal jewelry, and if you live in the United States, you are more than likely using electricity that is at least in part powered by coal, natural gas or petroleum.
While it is an excellent goal to strive for the reduction of the use of non-renewable natural resources, it’s not something that can happen overnight. Climate change is powering a movement to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but there is no driving cause that will push our society to reduce the use of other, more plentiful minerals and metals. There’s no real reason to reduce our reliance on those other types of mined resources so long as mining is done in an environmentally sustainable fashion. That being said, we should not forget the people that work to�enable�our�dependence�on those resources. What is needed are stronger protections for the men (and sometimes women) that work in such inherently dangerous conditions. �Even if there are no pay raises, even if there isn’t a reduction in the long hours worked, miners deserve to have a workplace where the dangers are limited to environmental hazards, and don’t include�additional risks due to human negligence.
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