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Anatomy of a Mine Disaster

Timothy M. Biddle, Proceedings of 34th Annual Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute (1988)

Miningparticularly underground miningis hazardous. The hazards are both natural and man-made. Today, most mining hazards are predictable and, with proper mining techniques, well-maintained equipment, and miner training, can either be eliminated or controlled.1

But it wasn't always so. Mine safety knowledge today is borne on hundreds of years of mistakes, big and small, which, in the course of recovering a resource underground, cost the lives of tens of thousands of miners around the world.2 The deaths and injuries from underground mining rose to an [10-3] intolerable level in the early 1900s.3 In 1910, the public outcry resulted in Congress' creation of the Bureau of Mines in the Department of the Interior.4 The Bureau of Mines was charged with identifying safety hazards in mines and researching ways to prevent miner injuries and deaths.5 That started the cycle of piecemeal attempts to legislate mine safety: a disaster followed by federal or state legislation; another disaster; a refinement of the legislation; another disaster; tougher laws. Thus, the story of federal mine safety legislation is a reactive one, reflecting the public's outrage over a number of mine disasters, most of which occurred in coal mines.6

The impetus for the federal mine safety law in effect today came from the Farmington Mine disaster, which killed 78 miners in November 1968. Occurrin