20070910 miners work in a shaft at crandall canyon 18
Miners work in a shaft at the Crandall Canyon coal mine near Huntington, Utah, where six miners were trapped by a cave-in. - 


Kai Ryssdal: Tomorrow in Washington, a Senate subcommittee will begin looking into mine safety. The focus will be the disaster nearly a month ago at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

Critics say mining companies are sacrificing safety to get every last lump of coal out of the ground. But Jeremy Hobson reports demand for coal is up, and so are prices. So companies have more incentive than ever to mine every inch they can.

Jeremy Hobson: The price of coal has more than doubled in the last six years, and demand is soaring.

Luke Popovich at the National Mining Association says it's no wonder mining companies are trying to maximize output.

Luke Popovich: Why leave that coal in the ground? Why leave any resource that's valuable in the ground at a time when the demand for electricity generation fired by coal is at an all-time high?

That's pushing miners deeper underground. And in some cases, they're going after the very pillars of coal that hold a mine's ceiling.

Sometimes, says Phil Smith at the United Mine Workers of America, workers are put at risk to increase profits.

Phil Smith: Coal operators have always wanted to make more money, and they're willing to bend just about any rule that they can.

Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association disagrees. He says mining companies don't put profits before safety.

Popovich: Certainly, if they found that a type of mining practice would have endangered the lives of their workers, they wouldn't do it.

Congress will be looking at that very question tomorrow. Among the witnesses expected at a Senate hearing: the owner of the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

Six men were trapped inside that mine in an accident last month. It's not clear whether they were going after the pillars of coal holding up the ceiling of their mine.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

Follow Jeremy Hobson at @jeremyhobson