Development & Education

The Price of Colombian Coal


(image courtesy of 'Scratch'/Flickr)

There was a lot of talk about clean coal during the presidential campaign.  Even President-Elect Barack Obama touted clean coal as a way to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign energy sources.

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But, not all coal burned in the United States is local; some of it comes from Colombia.  Coal miners in the South American nation lead hard lives--harder even than those of miners in the U.S.

Colombian coal miners have always had it rough.  Right-wing paramilitaries have killed four unionized miners since 2001.  One of them after they left the country's second-largest mine on a company bus.  Militias accused him of sympathizing with left-wing guerillas at the time, and the deaths are part of a string of union killings that have stalled the free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia.

Now, the war is abating, and coal production is growing.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration says Colombia will be the second-largest exporter of coal in the world by 2030, but there seems to be little oversight of the mines.  Working conditions are substandard, at best.  Francisco Ramirez is the head Sintramienergética, one of three mining unions in the country.  He says that a Colombian miner is seven times more likely to die or get injured here than he is in the U.S.  What's more, is that the U.S. miner makes seven times what a Colombian miner does.

The working conditions are so harsh that many of the miners' bodies take such abuse that they are rendered disabled, perhaps never to return to manual labor again.

The effects on the environment are dire as well.  Rivers are turned a milky white as a result of the tailings that were dumped upstream.  People no longer swim or hunt in these areas, even though there are no studies that show adverse affects yet.

Regional hospital records show that one-seveth of its close to 50,000 patients last year reported respiratory problems, and another 400 died as a result of pulmonary-related problems.

These problems will likely get worse when Drummond, the U.S. based company, begins to double production in the country in what will be the largest open-pit mine in the world.

It is not clear if any of this will affect the Obama administration's position on clean coal, or trade with Colombia.  The President-Elect has said that clean coal technology will offest some of this environmental and social impact, but such technology is years away in the United States, and decades away from places like Colombia. 

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