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Utah Mine Collapse Puts Spotlight on Coal Mining

Rescue efforts continue for six men trapped in a coal mine in the U.S. western state of Utah. Although the fate of the miners is still unknown, the unfolding tragedy is putting a spotlight on America's reliance on coal. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.

Few industries are as essential to the American way of life as coal mining.

Jeff Goodell, author of the book "Big Coal," says last year, miners pulled 1.1 billion tons of coal from the ground. "The two things that are really influencing this are the rise of natural gas prices and the political push for energy independence."

Coal is the number one source of energy in the United States, powering most electrical appliances -- from portable music players to refrigerators. In fact, 50 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal -- nearly 20 pounds each day for every American.

Carol Raulston is with the National Mining Association. "Coal's tremendous abundance in this country is a real advantage, but it's quite frankly because other sources of electricity are much more expensive," she said.

This is not the coal industry of 100 years ago. Today, large drills scour for bigger deposits -- much of it from open pit mines. And yet the number of miners continues to grow. Today, the industry employs about 80,000 miners in what some say are dangerous and dirty conditions.

The Sago mine disaster in the U.S. state of West Virginia last year claimed the lives of 12 miners and led to criticism about the lack of government oversight.

But industry analyst Ellen Smith says government enforcement is getting tougher. "It doesn't look the other way. And I'm not saying that it ever did. But it certainly has more teeth than it has in the past couple of years."

Coal's biggest critics are environmentalists, who see coal as a dirty energy source. Despite some progress in reducing pollutants, author Goodell says coal is primarily carbon, and many consider it the chief cause of global warming. "Clean coal is something like 'fat-free' donuts,” he says. “It's something that we would sort of all like to believe in and sounds good but in fact is just a kind of advertising slogan."

Like it or not, coal is here to stay. Industry experts say eliminating America's largest energy source altogether would more than quadruple electricity rates in the United States.