Coal’s Highest Price: 29 New Zealand Miners Die Underground

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The mesmerizing events of 33 miners’ survival and epic rescue from the San José mine outside Copiapó, Chile, was an incredible thing to behold. And my first reaction to the tremendous attention that the saga commanded was that it could help raise the profile of the workers across the world who put their lives at risk in mines everyday, as it did in Chile, and perhaps even spark some larger conversation about whether this dangerous enterprise, whose regulation varies wildly depending on where its happening, is something we can or should continue to live with, particularly when it comes to energy where other options are emerging.

But the rescue gave way to book deal scandals and marathons, and the 33 men who toughed it out all those months had to stop being symbols and start being husbands and fathers again. The fact that their trial was a happy exception to the rule – that most major mining accidents result in death – went back underground along with their colleagues who continue to excavate gold and copper for the San Esteban company. (See photos on of the Chilean mine rescue.)

The 29 miners that went missing in New Zealand last Friday were not as fortunate. Today, authorities announced that all of the miners, who had not been heard from since an explosion on Nov. 19 in a coal mine owned by Pike River Coal near the town of Greymouth on South Island, were dead.

Rescuers have not been able to go underground in the past five days due to the presence of explosive gases, and after a second explosion rocked the mine this afternoon, there was no hope for the men’s survival. “This has got to be the darkest day for me,” Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn told the New Zealand Herald. “For Greymouth, for everywhere…Things are never going to be the same.”

New Zealand, which bills itself as a pristine land of sheep and glaciers, is not the first place that you’d associate with coal mining, and its small industry has a relatively good safety record in recent years. The Pike River mine, which opened in 2008, draws from a 58.5 million ton seam of coal that is the largest deposit in the country, and shipped its first batch of coking coal, used for steel and coke-making, to India earlier this year. The mine aims to hit annual production of one million tons of coal by the middle of next year.

Will that goal be thrown off course by this week’s events? Probably not. The mine will surely undergo a deep investigation into what went wrong this week, but the ever-increasing demand for coal, particularly coking coal used in the construction industry in booming economies of India and China, is too loud a siren to say no to, especially in relatively remote, resource-rich places like New Zealand where mines mean jobs.

To boot:

World's Coal Consumption, 2008. Courtesy of EIA.

On a brighter note, if the events in Chile did not give way to any radical global soul searching, it may at least have convinced other coal mining countries that vigilance is a good PR opportunity. Earlier this week, better news came out of China, when 29 miners were successfully resuced from a coal mine in Sichuan province. It was second major mine rescue in the last two years in China, the world’s largest coal producer and a country that has long been among the deadliest places for miners to work because of its huge network of small, loosely regulated mining operations. Last year, 2,631 coal miners died in 1,616 mine accidents, according to official statistics. That’s 18% decrease from 2008, and now Beijing seems to finally be putting some elbow grease into its rescue efforts as well.

But the fact remains, as we saw today in New Zealand, in many cases miracle rescues just won’t be an option. For now, energy addicts that we are, we all have coal dust on our hands.