Friday, 16 September 2011

The Cost of Coal

The loss of four miners' lives in the Gleision Drift has really upset me, but why?

Of course it is a dreadful tragedy for the families and friends and a horrible way to go, but I did not know these people nor do I know the families. Nor did it happen in a community where I live or have lived, so I have no direct connection with the deaths. Yet, to anyone with coal mining in their family history, such terrible disasters send shivers down your spine.

I grew up in a comfortable home in Swansea away from the coal mines, but my mother grew up with mines and poverty in the South and hated the valleys for it - not the people of course but the consequences of mining coal. I was brought up to have great respect for miners and the communities they were from, but not to have any romantic notions about mining itself; an occupation that my brothers and I were the first generation to avoid (my Uncle went down Tower). I was very fortunate to spend a day down a working deep mine in the early 90's (Taff Merthyr) and it is an experience that will be with me forever-it scared the hell out of me. Yet this was a large mine, it was dry (although lots of gas) and relatively unfaulted and folded. They used the latest cutting equipment and the coal seam was 6 feet high; a very rare thing indeed in the South. Yet 4 days after I visited, two 'pitmen' died there.

The four miners who were found dead today worked in a tiny mine, where the coal seam was little more than a foot thick and the face not much bigger in places. The drift opened and closed on the vagaries of the world coal price and was undulating and wet. It takes some guts to work in such an environment.

Much of the south exists almost solely because of coal and the Wales I have grown up in would not exist without it's influence. Most of my life experiences have been moulded by a landscape, cityscape and community driven lifestyle that would not exist without coal extraction, so when a disaster like Gleision happens, I should get upset. I really believed that we had seen the last of coal mine disasters in Wales, but as long as we still mine for coal, it will kill. After all, over 2000 coal miners were killed last year in China alone.

There is a wall in the 'Big Pit' mining museum in Blaenafon, where all the names of the Welsh mining disasters and their victims are numbered. We took our boys there last year when visiting the Ebbw Vale Eisteddfod and tried to explain to our eldest the true cost of coal to the people of Wales. I became upset today when I realised that the list was still an open one and that four more names would have to be added. Of course, this list is small in comparison to the thousands who have suffered premature death through lung disease and other coal mining linked killers. 

Wales has paid a massive price for extracting the coal beneath us and today's awful disaster is a timely reminder, that we should never forget the sacrifices made and lives lost-in the pursuit of coal.

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