Five miners died in U.S. coal mines in 2020, a historic low for an industry in a year where production continued to decline as power companies move away from burning coal.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is tracking the deaths, said on Wednesday that there were a total of 29 deaths in all of the country's mines, including in coal mines, a sixth straight year in which the total number of fatalities was kept below 30.
The previous low number of annual coal deaths was eight in 2016, up from twelve last year. The number of workplace deaths in coal mines has remained low since 2014, with fewer than 20 deaths per year in the first year. Since then, totals are only twice as high as 12. A century ago, in 1920, the country had more than 2,200 deaths from coal before machinery replaced underground manpower.
Kentucky and West Virginia each had two mining deaths in 2020, and there was one in Pennsylvania. A miner's death while working in Pennsylvania in February was attributed to natural causes and was not counted as a mining accident.
Coal production has steadily declined over the past decade as dozens of coal-fired power plants have shut down. No new coal-fired power plants are being built in the US.
For the April to June 2020 quarter, U.S. coal mines produced about 115 million tons, compared to nearly 180 million tons in the same time in 2019, a 36% decline. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, the country's power plants used 30% less coal in the first half of 2020.
The EIA said that about 70 percent of the new electricity generation capacity going online in 2021 will come from solar and wind sources.
David Zatezalo, the US federal mine safety chief, said officials are focused on reducing mining accidents associated with the use of vehicles and conveyor belts in all mines, including coal, metal and non-metals mining operations.
"We have also focused on chronic problem areas, such as disproportionate accidents among contractors and inexperienced miners," Zatezalo said in a press release. He said those deaths were down 13% in 2020 compared to the year before.
MSHA said 2020 was also the first year in its history that it did not record seat belt-related deaths on mining sites. Zatezalo said MSHA inspectors issued 195 citations in 2020 for health conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, mining giant Murray Energy, once the largest private coal operator in the country, filed for bankruptcy. And the Tennessee Valley Authority's Paradise Plant in western Kentucky burned its last load of coal in February, despite opposition to the shutdown from President Donald Trump and leading Kentucky lawmakers.
About 230,000 miners work in 11,500 metal / non-metal mines in the US, while 64,000 work in the country's 1,000 coal mines.
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