Crandall Canyon and the Press

It's time to look deeper

As hope dims for the six coal miners trapped a quarter-mile under Emery county Utah, reporters have mostly focused on the mechanics and the ever-diminishing odds of a successful rescue. But the press should take this brief opportunity to show the country—and its miners, citizens, and regulators—how mine safety might be improved.

In 1975, CJR published a piece by Morton Mintz calling for more “comparative journalism.” Mintz looked across the country and saw problems with insurance regulations, state-banking laws, and yes, mine safety. He wrote:

“Other cities, other states, and other countries have found better, or at least innovative, answers to some of these sample problems, as we too often don’t know.”

Mintz argued that these answers themselves deserved reporting, even outside of a crisis. (Kevin Drum concluded with a similar thought in his recent CJR review of Sick, Jonathan Cohn’s healthcare book.)

According to Dennis O’Dell, a health and safety expert at the United Mine Workers of America, proven technologies—including wireless communication devices, safe haven chambers, and personal tracking devices—have been widely used and have saved lives in countries like Canada, Australia, Germany, and even Turkey. After the 2005 Sago Mine disaster, the government was required to issue a study on the feasibility of these steps by 2009. But even if the results are positive, there’s no guarantee they’ll be adopted. And a 1977 law allows the Secretary of Labor to require installation safe-havens by decree. So O’Dell asks, “why do you have to study something that you know works in other countries?”

It would be nice if the press focused some attention on these life-saving technologies, and how they fared in the post-Sago reforms. Some might say it would be unseemly to use impending tragedy as a peg for a journalistic crusade. But the press’s duty is not only to the six trapped men and their families, but to the thousands of miners who risk their lives every day.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.