The human cost of coal production

Around 6:30 a.m. an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Thirteen miners were trapped underground. News crews from around the country descended on West Virginia's coal country. Lawmakers in Washington demanded stricter safety regulations and enforcement. The nation held its breath.

It took nearly twelve hours before rescue crews could even enter the mine. By the time rescuers dug the men out, all but one were dead.

While most reporters covered the Sago Mine story as a tragic accident, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette decided to dig deeper. A fifteen-year veteran of the coal industry beat, Ward began examining mine records and visiting coalfields across West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. He spoke to coal miners, mine operators, government inspectors, and lawmakers. What he found was chilling: Mine operators and owners were pushing for the cheapest, fastest production of coal—a high-priced commodity—and sacrificing the lives and safety of miners in the process. Safety regulations were being ignored. Miners were receiving inadequate training. Rescue crews were short-staffed or nonexistent.

Ward's series brought the systemic flaws of coal mining—what one mine safety lawyer called "an outlaw industry"—into the national spotlight.

>> Watch "Sustained Outrage" online now. The episode is also airing on PBS. Check local listings.

>> Read Ken Ward's original series in The Charleston Gazette.

>> Read reporter Ken Ward’s tips for anyone interesting in investigating mine or worker safety issues.

>> The Mine Safety and Health Administration tracks mining deaths from 1995 to the present on its website. Poynter.org also highlights other mine safety resources.

Like our content? Help us do more.

Support Us