“Hundreds of men in China die, and it really doesn’t stop us from flicking a light switch. We don’t make that connection much. 25 men in West Virginia died today, and it hasn’t stopped me from using my computer or my television. We have a great capacity to accept and move on. But, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to adapt.”

by Kathleen Davis

The rather dramatic irony of this blog entry is that I thought about writing it yesterday after reading about China’s flooded mine and all the men trapped there. At that point, I was thinking about how much safer our own mines are here in the U.S., how that probably wouldn’t happen here after all the OSHA safety requirements and other issues involved. I was going to write about that, slant the article to say we can help China make mining less dangerous. Then, this morning, I read about the coal mine blast in West Virginia that killed 25 people with four still missing.

Coal mining is a dirty, nasty business—even with our OSHA regulations, even with our laws and safety requirements. We’re not so different, at the core, from China, after all. It may, in fact, be impossible to make mining a really safe endeavor.

I come from a long line of coal miners. I’ll bet you are surprised by that revelation. My grandfather was a coal miner. And his father. And his father’s father. My family’s dug a lot of black chunks out of the ground.

My grandfather used to talk sometimes, quietly about what miners fear most—back then it was a scary term called “blackdamp.” Blackdamp is the removal of oxygen in the air, which is replaced by toxic gases. Pretty much all tight, sealed environments can create blackdamp, but it’s especially nasty in coal mines because the coal itself adds to the problem. Coal, once exposed to air, begins absorbing oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide and water vapor. My grandfather used to talk about blackdamp as if the mine itself was breathing, cutting off air from the miners inside its gullet.

You can’t smell blackdamp. You usually only become aware when you get lightheaded and dizzy, uncoordinated like you’ve had way too much to drink.

Blackdamp was what miners feared most in my grandfather’s day. But, that wasn’t usually what killed them. It did kill some, of course, but most miners were killed from the force and power of collapses or accidents, not from the creeping blackdamp. Still, the blackdamp scared them most—that slow, crazy spiral to asphyxiation that it represented. My grandfather said the scariest thing was an awareness that death is coming down that mine in bits and parcels, in small steps and strides. And you had to watch. You had to realize what was coming.

My grandfather stopped fearing the blackdamp in 1947 because he stopped being a coal miner in 1947. March 26, 1947, to be exact. He was running late for his shift at the Centralia Coal Company’s No. 5 mine on the edge of Centralia, Illinois. He wasn’t usually the type to run late—at least not as I recall. (We always made it to the movies and the circus early enough to get sodas and popcorn when I was a kid.) But, that one day in 1947, he was a bit behind. He told me the reason was something to do with a family birthday celebration that had kept him up way too late the night before.

The celebration hadn’t, however, slowed down my great-grandfather. Not a bit. He was bang on time for the mine collapse—the worst coal mine disaster that the country had seen in nearly 20 years. 111 men died in that mine disaster, including my great-grandfather Jacob Rethard. My grandfather, Raymond, would talk about digging with shovels and picks and bare and bloody hands—anything to get to his father and those other men trapped, even though they knew just minutes after the shaft fell that hope for the lives of those men was completely futile: If the force didn’t get them, the blackdamp and growing lack of oxygen certainly would. It was a race against time, and they didn’t have the equipment to win. Still, my grandfather kept digging until he recovered the body of his father. His father was no. 110—the 110th body. No. 110 out of the 111 dead men pulled from that mine.

And my grandfather walked away from that disaster dirty and bloody and done. He left coal mining behind without a second thought.

As human beings, we are incredibly resilient. My grandfather certainly was. He became a security guard, working everywhere from Vegas to Oklahoma City. He raised a family and rarely talked about that coal mine collapse that killed his father. He was funny, a great cook, and he used to build the most amazing blanket-and-kitchen-chair forts in his living room, much to the annoyance of my grandmother. He pressed on.

As a society, we often mirror my grandfather’s ability to move forward. Hundreds of men in China die, and it really doesn’t stop us from flicking a light switch. We don’t make that connection much. 25 men in West Virginia died today, and it hasn’t stopped me from using my computer or my television. We have a great capacity to accept and move on. But, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to adapt.

I’ve thought a lot about the place of renewables in this industry in the last few years—most of it focused on the practical. I still think they are expensive and lacking in a certain economy of scale. But, perhaps I should think less about the financial cost of renewables and more about the lives they might save—not just with reducing global warming but direct human lives like those we lose regularly in coal mines around the world.

Jacob Rethard was a solid, tough family man who was proud to be a coal miner, but it cost him his life. My grandfather, Raymond Rethard, walked away from that disaster that killed his father a changed man, one who saw coal mining as not worth the risk. In the end, he died at a ripe old age surrounded by family—not by darkness and blackdamp.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to the humanity embroiled in the dangers of mining. If renewables become more prevalent, could we save more men in China and in West Virginia and in Illinois from dying in the dark? Years ago I made a definitive choice to never buy diamonds because of the human cost they sometimes require to mine. It was a change in attitude, and I know I’m not alone in that attitude or choice. Perhaps we, as an industry and as a society, also need to consider a change in attitude and adjust our social concepts and technological advances to give the advantage to renewables, even if they are more expensive. We should remember that we sometimes pay a very large, very human price for very cheap power.

And, bottom line, that human price may be much, much less if renewables were given a stronger foothold in power production. No man should fear the dark blackdamp in our smart energy future.