Our country seems to be suffering from an unusual number of natural and unnatural disasters — floods, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes, bridge collapses and mine cave-ins. We used to blame most of these on "acts of God," but now we're beginning to see that there is a good deal of human culpability, as well as pure chance involved in many of these.

I do not know why the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in the center of Minneapolis didn't collapse while we were driving over it a few days before it did come down. Apparently it was about due to fall, being the most heavily used bridge in Minnesota, with an estimated 140,000 vehicles a day crossing it.

Investigators are trying to figure out the reasons for its collapse. We do know that it was a "steel truss deck" type built in 1967. Of the 760 bridges of that type around the country, 264 have been judged by the Federal Highway Administration to be "structurally deficient." Visual inspections do not always reveal fatigue cracks and corrosion beneath the paint. But an even greater problem is that truss bridges built 40 years ago lack "redundancy." That is the ability of a bridge to disperse structural stress so that a single failure in a crucial structural part would not be able to bring down the whole edifice. Redundancy is now built into architectural designs, greatly alleviating the danger of collapse.

The collapse did point to a significant national failure — the failure of our federal, state and local governments to maintain and improve our nation's aging and crumbling infrastructure, and to devote enough resources to making necessary repairs. And 77,000 bridges in the whole nation have been judged to be structurally deficient.

In the past two years, Minnesota's Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed proposed increases in the gasoline tax that would have helped meet the state's bridge problems. Apparently the disaster has helped change the governor's mind about the need for additional tax revenue.

It is a great irony that at the present time our government is spending $10 billion a month in destroying Iraq's infrastructure.

A second disaster that has caught our nation's attention is the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse in central Utah. Here too, a number of people lost their lives. But in this disaster, human culpability was even more involved. When the mine collapsed, the miners were doing "retreat mining" — the most dangerous type of mining. In deep mines, some 1,500 feet down, where the downward pressure of the mountain is tremendous, it is crucial that pillars of coal be left in strategic places. In "retreat mining," these pillars are mined as the crew retreats from the mined area. Although Robert Murray, owner of Murray Energy Corp., has blamed the collapse on an earthquake, seismic analysis has indicated that the collapse was caused by pillar removal. In fact, when two sections of the mine collapsed last March, the mine should have been closed then. During the past three years, the Crandall Canyon mine was cited for more than 300 safety violations.

Although Murray apparently has had a change of mind and says he will be closing the mine for now, he has not changed his mind about "retreat mining." His company is the largest independent family-held coal producer in the U.S., and owns mines in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and Virginia, as well as Utah. He is vehemently anti-union, and miners in his company mines are forced to work longer hours for lower pay and in more dangerous health and safety conditions, as compared to miners working in union mines. Miners have mentioned his lack of caring and compassion for his workers and his greed for profits.

Meanwhile, we have other disasters to contend with — floods, drought, tornatoes, hurricanes. Are these purely natural occurrences, "acts of God," or do we humans have some involvement in them through our contributions to global warming and climate change? The devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, which could have been prevented or at least reduced, continues to be a social and economic disaster for many current and past Gulf Coast residents. Once again, critical funds needed for infrastrure improvements are being used up in Iraq.

This is more than a financial problem — it is one of priorities and values.

I believe we could do a lot better in dealing with our natural and unnatural disasters. Indeed, we must!

This column is sponsored by Cumberland Countians for Peace and Justice, an organization composed of representatives from various churches in the area, and dedicated by the local writers to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world. Opinions expressed in “Lion and the Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Emerson Abts, editor, at 277-5101.

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