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U.S. Coal Mine Deaths Rise After Record-Low 2016

A coal miner works next to a drill in a Welch, W.Va., coal mine in 2016.
David Goldman
A coal miner works next to a drill in a Welch, W.Va., coal mine in 2016.

U.S. coal mines recorded 15 workplace deaths in 2017 only a year after they hit a record low, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data released on Tuesday.

In 2016, just nine deaths occurred in U.S. coal mines.

West Virginia mines saw eight deaths, Kentucky had two, and one each occurred at mines in Alabama, Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

West Virginia, the site of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners, has led the nation in mining deaths for six of the past eight years.

According to The Associated Press:

"Eight coal mining deaths this year involved hauling vehicles, and two others involved machinery. None were attributed to an explosion of gas or dust, which was to blame for the Upper Big Branch disaster.

"According to MSHA data, seven of the eight U.S. coal mining fatalities in the first half of 2017 involved miners with one year or less experience at the mine, and six involved miners with one year or less experience on the job. In June, MSHA announced an initiative focusing on less experienced miners, including improved mine operators' training programs."

In September, President Trump's appointee to head MSHA, former mining company executive David Zatezalo, was criticized forallegedly approving the firing of a worker who complained about safety violations. However, most of the mine fatalities occurred before Zatezalo took over MSHA.

The president has been a vocal proponent of the coal industry and campaigned on a promise to bring back coal jobs.

According to StateImpact, a reporting project of NPR member stations, coal production was up about 8 percent last year but still way down from where it was only a few years ago.

StateImpact reports:

"The number of U.S. coal miners fell from 90,000 in 2012 to 50,000 in 2016, but the industry has addedaround 2,000 jobs so far this year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"And the Department of Energy says coal demand will remain more or less flat the next couple of years."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.