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With coal boom, more miner risks

Utah has seen the fastest rise in coal-mining employment of any major coal-producing state.

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A herculean effort to rescue six coal miners trapped deep inside the Crandall Canyon Mine in central Utah is focusing national attention on a downside of the nation's coal boom. As the industry gears up to extract record amounts of coal for growing US energy needs, it's employing a growing cadre of workers in an inherently dangerous occupation.

Nowhere is this trend clearer than in Utah.

It has seen the fastest rise in coal-mining employment of any major coal-producing state. From 2002 to 2006, the number of miners has jumped from 1,525 to 1,994 – a 31 percent increase. A significant number of those workers appear to be Hispanic.

The dangers were brought home last week when a cave-in last Monday trapped six miners near Huntington, Utah. Since then, several ways to contact the miners have been undertaken. On Saturday, a hole – 8-5/8 inches in diameter – was drilled some 1,900 feet deep into the cavity where the miners are believed to be trapped, and a camera was lowered that showed an area 5-1/2 feet high. "We found a survivable space," said Richard Stickler, head of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration. But he also reported that no sounds were heard from the trapped miners.

The effort to save the six workers at Crandall Canyon Mine is the latest in several high-profile attempts in the nation's mines in recent years, which underscore the risks of the occupation. Indeed, coal-mining is one of the nation's 10 most dangerous industries: Last year, at a time when the overall worker fatality rate fell to a 15-year low, coal-mining fatalities more than doubled, according to a US Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last week.

That increase was mostly due to the Sago mine accident and three other multiple-fatality incidents in 2006, in which 21 workers died. "The fatality rate for coal mining jumped 84 percent in 2006 to 49.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers, up from 26.8 in 2005," the report states.

Yet the demand for workers in the coal industry is likely to only increase. Many of this country's coal mines are gearing up to provide fuel for new power plants coming on line. According to a US Department of Energy report this May, 151 new coal-fired plants are in the planning stages, representing a $145 billion investment – producing enough energy to service 90 million US homes.

In fact, US coal production is projected to increase an average of 1.5 percent per year through 2025, says the US Energy Information Administration.

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