Monday, October 27, 2014

Coal Miners Are People, Not "Jobs"


State Senator Jared Carpenter sat across his desk within the capitol annex of the Kentucky State Capitol, his smile was the same I imagined he greeted customers with at the First Southern National Bank in Richmond, Kentucky. It is Valentine’s Day of 2013, a day selected by the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to lobby for the health and safety of Appalachian communities. I sat beside John Wright-Rios who had set up the meeting.

I’m already annoyed by the “Friends of Coal” license plate proudly displayed on Carpenter's bookshelf, along with a roll of “I ♥ Coal” stickers, both likely given to him by coal’s well-funded corporate lobbying force known as the Kentucky Coal Association. Carpenter was the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources committee, according to his website "His ascension to the position made him one of the fastest rising committee chairs in the chamber, and one of the youngest.  Through his work on the committee, he has gained attention for his work on behalf of Kentucky coal and for taking a strong stand against President Obama and his EPA." Coal has a lot of power in the state capitol, perhaps more than the 4 million residents living in the state.

Regardless of the uphill battle to put people before coal industry profits, we try, even after passing dozens of representatives, senators, and lobbyists wearing the same stickers that spilled from their roll on Carpenter's bookshelf.

“Did you take that tour in to coal country you said you were going to take last year?” My casual tone was much friendlier than I felt.

Carpenter’s smile grew a little larger. “I sure did and I learned a lot. We went into an underground mine and I watched a couple of men run a roof bolter. That’s some hard work they do. I have a lot of respect for them.”

His words grated on me. He'd never worked in the coal mines, he didn't know what hard work was, but I steeled myself and avoided confrontation.

“It's definitely hard work. A lot of the miners get hurt doing it. The person I started roofbolting with was only in his late twenties and was already having a lot of back and shoulder issues. ”

“Well, that’s with any industry.” He said, his smile only fading a little.

It was a programmed response, one I'd heard before from other politicians and coal industry supporters.  It is their way of downplaying the pain and suffering caused by the “jobs” they so proudly provide.

As you would imagine, their statements are untrue….

Take a moment to read over this fact sheet below, published on the United States Department of Labor - Bureau of Labor Statistics website in April of 2010:

Coal mining is a relatively dangerous industry. Employees in coal mining are more likely to be killed or to incur a non-fatal injury or illness, and their injuries are more likely to be severe than workers in private industry as a whole, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Coal mining is part of the Mining sector along with other mining and extractive industries such as oil and gas. Coal mining is further divided into Bituminous coal underground mining, Bituminous coal and lignite surface mining, and Anthracite mining. Bituminous coal underground mining employs slightly more than half of all coal mining industry workers, but experiences a higher share of occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities.

The rate of fatal injuries in the coal mining industry in 2007 was 24.8 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, nearly six times the rate for all private industry. This represents a 57 percent decrease from the 2006 rate of 58.1 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. Fatal injuries in 2006 included the Sago mine disaster.

Rates of fatal occupational injury in 2007:
Total private industry: 4.3 cases per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers
Coal mining: 24.8 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers

There were 28 fatal injuries in coal mining in 2007, down from an average of 31 fatalities per year from 2003 to 2006. In 2007, 20 fatalities (or 71 percent of all fatalities in coal mining) were in bituminous coal underground mining. Contact with objects and equipment and transportation incidents were the most frequent fatal events with 18 and 5 fatal injuries respectively.

The rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses in coal mining in 2008 was 4.4 cases per 100 full-time workers, 13 percent higher than for total private industry. In bituminous coal underground mining, the rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses was 66 percent higher than that of all private industry. Bituminous and lignite surface mining had a rate that was 49 percent lower than all private industry. Anthracite had a rate 59 percent higher than all private industry, but a very small number of cases.

Total nonfatal injury and illness incidence rates in 2008:
Total private industry: 3.9 cases per 100 full-time workers
Coal mining: 4.4 per 100 full-time workers
Bituminous coal underground mining: 6.5 per 100 full-time workers
Bituminous coal and lignite surface mining: 2.0 per 100 full-time workers
Anthracite mining: 6.2 per 100 full-time workers

More serious injuries and illnesses require days away from work to recuperate. In coal mining, the rate of injuries and illnesses with days away from work was 2.6 per 100 full-time workers in 2008, more than twice the rate for the private sector as a whole. The bituminous coal underground mining rate was 3.9 per 100 full-time workers, more than three times the total private industry rate.

Rates of injuries and illnesses with days away from work in 2008:
Total private industry: 1.1 cases per 100 full-time workers
Coal mining: 2.6 per 100 full-time workers
Bituminous coal underground mining: 3.9 per 100 full-time workers
Bituminous coal and lignite surface mining: 1.2 per 100 full-time workers
Anthracite mining: 4.7 per 100 full-time workers

The number of median days away from work is a measure of the severity of injuries and illnesses. Workers in coal mining and bituminous coal underground mining were away from work due to occupational injuries or illnesses longer than the 8 median days experienced by all private industry workers. Fractures, which frequently require long recuperations, account for 19 percent of all injuries and illnesses in coal mining, compared to 8 percent in all private industry.

Median days away from work in 2008:
Total private industry: 8 median days away from work
Coal mining: 31 days
Bituminous coal underground mining: 34 days
Fractures, all private industry: 28 days

The report speaks for itself. Despite such facts, the attitudes of oi politicians like Carpenter remain the same. Their understanding begins and ends with revenue sheets and political polls.

Carpenter and I went round for round, his "banker's" smile still as friendly. He gave me this ultimatum, "Next time you visit, bring me a way to solve the economic problems of Eastern Kentucky." He had completely ignored the wonderful advice given to him by Miles, a member of our group in 7th Grade. Mile's spoke like an adult despite his age, having picked up on what his parents had been doing to solve the economic problems of Eastern Kentucky through their jobs within the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and Appalachian Transitions. Sadly, his hard hitting facts and powerful suggestions fell on deaf ears. MACED and Appalachian Transitions does not have the money to fill campaign coffers like the Kentucky Coal Association.

We left Carpenter's office having gained nothing. On our way back to debrief the larger group, I came across Rocky Adkins, House Majority Floor Leader and representative from Eastern Kentucky, standing in the hall speaking with lady who wore an “I ♥ Coal”sticker.

“I couldn’t help but notice your sticker ma'am. Why do you love coal?” I said.

Rocky Adkins spoke up before she could answer and he gestured at the lights, “Well, it gives us these lights and it gives people jobs!”

“Well, it hasn’t been quite that great for my family. My father injured his back in the mines and now suffers every day because of it. I have an uncle who some days has to lie on his stomach on the floor most of the day because it was the only way he could get relief from his back injury he’d had in the mines. My cousin has wasted away to nothing because of his pain and his injury in the mines.”

“That’s unfortunate,” he said. Another programmed response.

Kainaz Amaria - Appalachia Coal Essay
What is unfortunate is the way coal miners and their families have become “jobs,” a means to a vote that will keep politicians in their capitol offices and coal company stock holders in their gated communities. How could anyone ask someone to give so much of themselves, to risk life and limb, to give up their long term health, all to maintain their status within society? If they truly cared for the people of Appalachia as I do, they would never ask someone to sacrifice their health doing such a dangerous job—they would instead seek alternatives for them, they would find was to give the people they represent a good and happy life for their families without health concerns. They would be investing in energy efficiency technologies to solve our unnecessary energy demands and to employ thousands of coal miners who must use up their bodies to put food on the table.

But this is not the way of progress for the people who do so well within the halls of state and national capitols. In their world, some people are meant to own coal mines, some people are meant to be politicians, and some people are meant to be coal miners.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Laid Off

Over the past four years we have witnessed an amazing downturn in the coal industry. Mines all throughout Appalachia have closed, leaving thousands of coal miners and their families in dire straits. For as long as the coal industry has existed, the people of Appalachia have lived at the mercy of a boom and bust market. How did this come to be? Weren't the people of Appalachia once known for being  robust, resilient, with an endearing sense of hospitality? Didn't they live in the mountains for nearly a century before timber and coal, enjoying the absolute freedom of their lives, without debt, without a want or care for the latest social and cultural trends that placed their urban neighbors into a life of wage slavery? What has happened to Appalachian people that has made these recent layoffs so detrimental? 

Had the most recent layoffs come 75 or 100 years ago, they would have hurt, but the blow to mountain families would not have not been nearly as severe. Our ancestors had been weary of becoming entirely dependent upon coal mining wages for their food supply and shelter. They didn’t trust banks. They’d known the bondage placed on them in the early year by company script, company stores, and perpetual debt. For years after coal became king, Appalachian people held on to that sense of freedom passed down by their ancestors. As my grandfather tried to teach us, “It’s your wants that get you in trouble, not your needs.” But theirs was also a different time. When they lived, there were still enough woods to hunt in and run their hogs. The water coming out of the mountain sides and out of family wells was still clean enough to drink. Extended families still owned enough land to graze mule teams and a dairy cow. They could still plant enough food for themselves and sometimes for their livestock. Today, many of the miners being sent home from the coal mines do not have a farm to go home to. They cannot spend their idle time using their hands to provide for their family in the traditional ways. Each day the mail carrier brings another bill, another reminder of the life they’ve been forced to lead at the mercy of “progress.”

It is truly criminal how much the coal industry has forced our dependency upon them. They’ve taken our lands, our water, our dignity—even our freedom. Since they came in, each generation has lost the ability to provide from what God has given us. Without our lands and our forests, there are fewer choices when it comes to finding happiness. We have been enslaved into the cultural and social trends our forefathers so desperately avoided. We have been told that to "be somebody" we have to work hard, to have nice homes, nice vehicles, that our children must dress in brand name clothing. Each weekend many people flock to the nearby cities to buy and show off their new shiny things, to prove to the rest of the world they are not the "dumb hillbillies" their ancestors were once proud to be. Coal mining wages are the great equalizer between mountain people and the outside world, but it comes at the cost of our health. Deep inside, we know that we are still looked down upon even if we can now afford the things others have. When the coal market is down and we are unable to purchase a false sense of acceptance, we fall into depression-some turning to drugs.

Of course, the coal industry isn’t having the best time. CEOs, board members, and stock holders are reeling with the decline of the coal market, fearful their businesses will falter leaving them without their immense power. It is the power that they truly enjoy, not so much the money. Like generals in a war room, they move their small plastic soldiers, each representing the lives of thousands of men and
Corporate jets on the ramp at Lonesome Pine Airport
women. Open this mine, close that one. Lay off this many, scare the hell out of the others to up
production. Pay into this campaign, pull the strings on the politicians already in office. It is a game to them. They have their millions, their foreign bank accounts, their global investments. They have their mansions in their gated communities. When these industrialists become outplayed by their counterparts in a different industry or in a different part of the world, they do not have to fear losing their homes. They do not have to lay awake at night wondering if they can afford school clothes for their children, whether or not they can afford the next light bill, let alone how they can afford to get their kids to the dentist.


The “War on Coal” is real. But it’s not what they make it out to be. It is a battle between industries, massive oil and natural gas companies vying for profit in the electrical generation sector. It is not being waged by the EPA and politicians. It isn't between environmentalists and coal mining families. As with any war, the wealthy corporations sit back, giving orders to their officers in congress and in the state houses, spreading propaganda to make people fight for their causes and letting the casualties fall upon the lower classes. We fight their battles and suffer their losses. They leave us with a war torn land, water we cannot drink, messes that cannot be cleaned up, and all the public debts that must be repaid. They leave us jobless and broken with children wanting to be their next coal miners, the next to fall victim to their games. Each time they battle for profits the less we are able to pick up the pieces and begin our own lives again. But we can. We must.We are Appalachians.


We can fight back. We can see through their lies, to see them as they truly are. We can remember our history and know that coal companies are not our friends and that we are not Friends of Coal, we are Slaves to Coal. We can find our way back to our own freedom, building our own economy, not being enslaved to theirs. It will not be easy. There will be mistakes, there will be further losses. But we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere begins without a dependence upon coal.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Religion of Coal

I usually avoid religion in my posts since it is such an inflammatory subject, but I can longer ignore the inclination of some people back home to apply religious morality to the subject of coal mining.

“If God didn’t want us to use coal, he wouldn’t have put it there!” I've heard it a dozen times from friends and family back home. It's even been preached in sermons to coal miners and their families and proclaimed at coal rallies. Yet, no one seems to ask the question...what if coal wasn't placed here for us to mine and use it as we have?

Let us look at the history of coal.

In the early days of coal mining thousands of men and boys lost their lives every year in the darkness of a mountain. The owners of the coal mines were ruthless and full of greed, paying as little salary as possible and turning coal miners into slaves through company script and hiring mercenaries to maintain the status quo. The coal was shipped off where it would be put to use making steel in massive mills, polluting entire cities and causing countless deaths from respiratory illnesses. The steel mill owners, like the coal company owners, were full of tempestuous greed, treating their workers in much the same ways as in the coal camps.  Though rank and file unions ended many of these abuses, the greed of coal and steel industries continue the exploitation of their workforce, denying them safety in the drive for more production, refusing them black lung benefits, and even finding ways to avoid their pension obligations.



And what of the steel that was made? What purpose has it served? Bridges, railroads, massive skyscrapers and buildings, and even machines of war that have spilled blood the world over. Have these things made us a better people? Have they brought us closer to God?




The world created by coal has never been one of justice and equality, especially that taught by Jesus. Billions of people throughout the world are cast into extreme poverty as the industrialized nations build larger cities and wage wars for more resource wealth. Millions of people attend churches powered by coal, hearing the good word, hearing of Jesus' teachings, and somehow ignoring all of the suffering and despair caused by their love of comfort, convenience, and material things. Each Sunday they hear about the salvation of God and learn how to save their souls but do not care to learn about the way coal companies appeal coal miner's black lung benefits, about the  billions of gallons of coal waste polluting Appalachia, the children with asthma living near power plants, let alone the sweatshops full of children across the world that manufacture the clothes on their backs. 

"Cheap energy" is the new gospel that breaks the backs of thousands of coal miners. A "healthy economy" blinds people to the unhealthy water sources where coal is extracted, cleaned, and used. God's creation is being polluted and destroyed, torn down in the name of progress, and many so called Christians can only worry about their precious economy, unwilling to seek alternatives and grant our children a better life, a life that doesn't require them to sell their health and happiness for a paycheck.What would St. Peter say to someone who did not fight to keep their children from such a fate?

And so I ask, would a loving God, who created this amazing world full of life, full of so many wonders, who sent his only begotten son to teach us lessons of love and humility, really place something here that would create so much harm and hatred? Would He tell us to lay waste to the lands He created so we can have a better economy--more money?

God provided us with everything we need on this Earth. Have we truly needed coal? Did He intend for us to be devoted to energy? Did God ever intend for us to work in the coal mines for money, destroying our bodies to make someone a big profit?  


What if coal isn't a gift from God? What if it has been our greatest temptation?

Has coal created love, or a love of money? 

Matthew 6:24

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon [money].

1 Timothy 6:10

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after , they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Hebrews 13:5

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have : for he hath said , I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.

Matthew 19:21

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast , and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Present Day Coal Mining: Dishonoring our heritage.



Drive into the central Appalachian coalfields and you’ll see dozens of vehicles with stickers such as “Friends of Coal,” “Coal Mining our Future,” “Friends in Low Places” etc. I am not entirely sure when the change came, but sometime in the last fifteen to twenty years the ultimate goal of coal miners has gone from working to give future generations a better life outside of coal mining, to ensuring they have no alternative but coal mining.

This is the most disturbing part of Appalachia’s decline to me. Our forefather’s pride and heritage, their struggles through decades of abuse from the coal industry, has all been forgotten. Their lessons, such as putting needs before wants and finding happiness in simplicity, has been replaced with unbelievable short sightedness. The once modest home of the young Appalachian coal miner has become anything but. The basic beat around, ride to work truck has become a tricked out diesel with rims complete with a "Friends of Coal" license plate and a vinyl sticker in the back glass with the mantra "Friends in Low Places." 

Of the many things lost in the past two generations of Appalachian coal miners, humility, compassion, and a willingness to listen and think critically has been among them. For this, I place a great deal of blame on their parents for withholding some of the most important lessons that were taught to them as children: their history, the importance of living simply, and the difference between want and need.

Today, coal miners have a long list of justifications for what they must do for a living, much of which revolves  around what money has to tell them. Sadly, the voices of our past has been diminished beneath the modern day “necessity” for all things big and shiny. It's a disgrace to the coal mining families who spent decades fighting and sacrificing to give their children a better future.


The old ways of looking down the road for the next big challenge, then doing what one can to weather it, has been given up for “live for today, who knows what tomorrow will bring” attitude. For those of us who still look towards the future, we know what is coming. It is as easy as looking to the past. Boom and bust, poverty and sickness, all while coal company owners live on wherever the water is clean and their is easy access to the private jet. Their children will never have to face the challenges our children will face.

What's worse, our children are no longer shown how to raise their own food in the family garden. Few know the enjoyment of looking forward to and finally tasting things that come into season. The wonders of watching a plant grow from a seed to provide you with free and  abundant food is being lost. Instead of a vocabulary of greasy beans, bantam, or kennebec, children instead learn wages, xbox, ATV, mortgage, and war on coal. 

How long has it been since a coal miner built a can house?

Forgetting our history, supporting the coal companies, destroying our mountains, polluting our water—now that is what I call dishonoring our coal mining heritage, dishonoring every coal mining family who ever stood up to the coal companies, fighting to give their children a chance at a better future.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Appalachians, Freedom, and Kindness

I've heard it said that Appalachian people started moving to the mountains to find solitude and freedom. I try to put myself into the place of those early pioneers, many of which were Scotch-Irish, brought to the new world as indentured servants. I try to think of what their choices were after being victims of classism, sentenced to lives of  deplorable living conditions and near starvation.
 Is it hard to believe that they enjoyed the freedom given to them in those rugged, untouched mountains, that they preferred living in a state of nature similar to that which was described by John Locke or Jean-Jeaques Rousseau? 

I do not pretend to romanticize this past. There were times in which terrible circumstances tore from those settlers every shred of happiness they could muster in the wilderness. Justice may have been wrongly and cruelly served where passion struck hearts overpowered logic. Yet, I do not believe they lived in utter destitution and misery, for if they did, they would have made different choices.

It is this choice that defines Appalachia and the people within it. Those early pioneers and the many subsequent generations were not imprisoned there. Nothing prevented them from moving back to the cities and farmlands back east, or from venturing further west with the expansion. The people of the Appalachian Mountains stayed, choosing to continue their simplistic lives together, forging the underlying familial values and a sense of generosity that largely defines the region even after war and industrialization brought greed and violence back into the hearts of many.

Shucking Corn Till Sundown - Walt Curlee
Scarcity of land and political motives divided people. Company script and paychecks began replacing gardens. Television replaced evenings spent on front porches or sitting around the kitchen table with neighbors.

Even then people still tried to stick together as society forced them apart. The labor movements were born in the mountains, born from those people still fighting for freedom.

Egoism is the means by which many search for false happiness these days, each relinquishing themselves to the will of the economy. The society our ancestors fled from three and four hundred years ago has infiltrated every hollow, every ridge line, every creek. The kindest of people have turned to hardness against their neighbors in search of paycheck after paycheck.

Life has become hard for those of us who still cling to the old ways. We were taught that someone's worth should be based on their generosity while it seems the rest of the world is taught to base their worth on money. We were taught to look for the goodness in others while the rest of the world is being taught to "do unto others before they do unto you." 

Our happiness is being robbed by the ill will of others, by selfishness, by the callousness taught to children in a world of "take what you can get." And still we cling to those old ways, we hold onto that glimmer of hope that people's hearts will soften, that people will think not in terms of what they can do for themselves, but what they can do for others. Though it is easy to take the hurt we so often feel and lash out with equal venom, we instead choose to transform it into a deeper sense of love--a means of cherishing who we are and where we come from.

Here's to forgiveness...and hope.