Already in severe economic distress from tumbling demand and plunging energy prices, the nation’s beleaguered coal industry started the new year on a tragic note: Three miners died on the job in the first three weeks of 2016.
While it would be a mistake to draw too much from the spate of fatalities, the man in charge of keeping miners safe found the death toll troubling, particularly given the fatal accidents in January follow the two back-to-back safest years in U.S. mining history.
“When those three fatalities happened, we weren’t waiting to let folks know that this needs to get turned around here,” Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main told CBS MoneyWatch. “Understanding the economic difficulties here, we cannot lose ground, which can happen if they start pulling back on investments in mine safety in these tough times.”
Battered by falling demand and bankruptcies of energy companies up and down the supply chain, coal mines are laying off workers and closing on a regular basis, with no end in sight to the market’s deterioration. As companies hemorrhaging cash look to cut costs, it stands to reason that worker protections could get short shrift.
One of 2016’s fatalities occurred at a mine owned by Alliance Resource Partners (ARLP). In an investor call last week, Joseph Craft, ARLP’s president and CEO, detailed cutbacks in production and cited an oversupplied coal market, weak power demand, “persistently low natural gas prices” and government regulations for the ongoing softening in market conditions.
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