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October 1993, Vol. 116, No. 10
Injuries and illnesses among bituminous and lignite coal miners
Coal is one of the most important sources of energy in the United States, accounting for 33 percent of total domestic energy production.1 But the future of coal as a leading source of energy is in doubt because of its high sulfur content and contribution to acid rain.2 Nevertheless, for now and at least for the next generation, coal is likely to be an important source of energy production in the United States.3
As debate continues over the use of coal, policymakers would benefit from detailed information on the frequency and nature of injuries and illnesses incurred by workers mining coal. This article describes mining processes associated with the coal industry and, more specifically, the factors associated with injury and illness in the bituminous and lignite coal industry.4 Bituminous coal is a mineral coal that bums with a smoky, yellow flame, and lignite is a low-grade, brownish black coal. This article briefly describes the history and work processes in coal mining, provides information about injuries and illnesses among coal miners, and offers some concluding observations and comments.
The industry at a glance Coal has been mined commercially in the United States since colonial times, but it was not until the mid-19th century that the demand for coal began to escalate, increasing at a rate of nearly 11 percent annually.5 Industrialization, particularly the development of the railroads, provided the impetus for demand, while at the same time woodlands on the Atlantic coast were being depleted.6 By 1890, coal had emerged as one of the most important sources of domestic energy consumption and remained as such until the late 1940's, when competition from cheap oil in the Middle East diminished coal's relative importance.7
Electric utilities have emerged as the most important consumer of coal during the last 40 years. During the 1940's, utilities consumed an average of about 16 percent of domestic coal production and, by 1990, that proportion increased sharply to 86 percent.8 In the next 20 years at least, utilities are expected to continue as the Nation's major consumer of coal.9
Several factors account for the emergence of utilities as the most important customer of coal. First, utilities, with their own supply of coal, used that supply to obtain bargaining leverage in negotiations with other coal suppliers.10 Second, the expectation that oil prices would continue to rise during the 1970's prompted many utilities to secure their own long-term coal supplies.11 Third, utilities purchased coal companies as a defensive strategy against what was perceived as a growing monopolization of the coal industry by the oil conglomerates.12
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1 See Monthly Energy Review (U.S. Department of Energy, March 1992), p. 7. Dry natural gas accounts for 27 percent of total domestic energy production; crude oil, 23 percent; nuclear electric power, 9 percent; hydroelectric power, 4 percent; other sources, 4 percent. However, petroleum accounts for 40 percent of the total U.S. energy consumption, which is the largest source of energy consumption. Coal and natural gas combined account for approximately 23 percent of total domestic energy consumption.
2 When high sulfur coal is burned, it combines with oxygen to form sulfur dioxide, which can damage human health, forests, and vegetation. For a discussion of the origins of sulfur in coal, its distribution across the United States, and a discussion of the molecular content of coal, see Robert Noyes, ed., Coal Resources, Characteristics and Ownership in the U.SA. (Park Ridge, NJ, Noyes Data Corp., 1978), pp. 45-49.
3 For an argument that coal and other fossil fuels should be replaced by renewable sources of energy, see Christopher Flavin, "Building a Bridge to Sustainable Energy," in Lester Brown, ed., State of the World (New York, W. W. Norton, 1992), pp. 27-45.
4 Lignite is the lowest rank of coal in heat content moisture. In 1990, lignite accounted for approximately 10 percent of the total coal mined in the United States. Excluded from this analysis is anthracite coal, which accounted for less than 1 percent of coal mined in 1990, and coal mining services for others on a contract or fee basis. See Coal Data: A Reference, (U.S. Department of Energy, 199 1), p. 39.
5 See Alexander M. Thompson 111, Technology, Labor and Industrial Structure of the U.S. Coal Industry (New York, Garland Publishing, 1979), p. 19.
6 See Thompson, Technology, Labor, p. 21; Curtis Seltzer, Fire in the Hole (Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1985), p. 5.
7 See Thompson, Technology, Labor, p. 22.
8 See Monthly Energy Review, March 1992, p. 84. For an expanded discussion, see Robert Johnson and Caleb Solomon, "Coal Quietly Regains a Dominant Chunk of Generating Market," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 20, 1992, pp. A1 and A4.
9 "NCA: U.S. Coal Production to Top 1 Billion Tons by 2000," Coal, May 1989, p. 9.
10 Office of Technology Assessment, The Direct Use of Coal, (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979), p. I 1 2.
11 Energy Information Administration, The Changing Structure of the U.S. Coal Industry 1976-1986. (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), p. 1.
12 Thompson, Technology, Labor. p. 326. For a discussion of the "growing monopolization of the coal industry by the oil conglomerates;" see Jack Reardon, "Restructuring of the Oil Industry: A Comment," Journal of Economic Issues, September 1993.
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