Friday, July 29, 2011

Guess who wants your kids to work in a coal mine?

© Photo R. L. Mullins
There are two resources in Appalachia that make men wealthy. Fossil Fuels and people. After all, no one has been able to design fully autonomous machines to produce coal. Without coal miners the coal industry has no way of retrieving their billions of tons of reserves. When they look to the long term future of their business they realize they must have an ample supply of young men (and in some cases women) willing to work in their mines.
Several months ago I read a quote on the Friends of Coal website that perturbed me and I have been preaching it to people ever since. For those of you who are just now tuning in, Friends of Coal is an organization developed and funded by the West Virginia Coal Association and other coal associations. Coal associations are groups of coal companies who combine their resources to campaign for and lobby politicians with the goal of gaining better legislation to help their profits. See my previous post, “Still a Friend of Coal?”
Friends of Coal isn’t just about gaining support from coal miners to help force their issues in Washington. It’s also about building a pride amongst Appalachian people to help insure they have a continued supply of coal miners. Here is the Friends of Coal Mission Statement. Pay particular attention to the last sentence, the quote I have preached about….
The Friends of Coal is dedicated to inform and educate West Virginia citizens about the coal industry and its vital role in the state's future. Our goal is to provide a united voice for an industry that has been and remains a critical economic contributor to West Virginia. By working together, we can provide good jobs and benefits for future generations, which will keep our children and grandchildren close to home.

When I first read this my jaw dropped. Could the coal associations really be saying what they are saying? It’s smooth, I’ll give them that. The coal industry is asking us to ally with them as constituents to force their agenda, so they can "provide good jobs", mining jobs, "for your children and grandchildren so they can stay close to home."
I began asking all of the older generation coal miners I could find what they thought about their kids going to work in the mines. The responses were often that of utter disappointment. “We wanted you kids to do well in school so you could go to college and avoid having to work in the mines,” my uncle told me when I read him the quote, “that way you could’ve had a chance at a better life.”

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Growing Up in the Coalfields: The South Mountain Mine Explosion

After the first year or so my father finally landed a job working in the mines, this time working for Ridley Elkin’s coal company. When he applied he’d hoped to work at the South Mountain No. 3 mine since it had the highest coal, but, as fate would have it, he was sent up the road to their Plowboy #4 mines. Less than a month later, on the cold morning of December 7, 1992, an explosion occurred at South Mountain No.3. It was the first explosion to rock the mining communities of Southwest Virginia since the explosion at McClure #1  which killed 7 men in June of 1983.

While we were getting ready for school that morning my mother received a call. She went in and woke my father to tell him the news. There was no communication with the men inside and the local news showed smoke billowing from the portals. We still held hope that the men working the # 1 Left section were still alive, including the father of one of my schoolmates who had been there less than 6 months. Despite the emotional turmoil occuring just down the road my dad still had to report to work at Plowboy #4.   To this day he still recalls passing by the entrance to the South Mountain No.3 mine and seeing it lit up at night with all of the news crews swarming the area. "It was the hardest thing I think I ever had to do,” he told me solemnly, “go to work knowing them boys was still in that mine."
Two and half days later all hope was lost when mine rescue teams reached the section. The lives of eight men had been lost.
Claude D. Strugill       
Palmer E. Sturgill       
Mike D. Mullins                     
Brian Owens  
James E. “Garr” Mullins                    
David K. Carlton                     
Danny R. Gentry         
Norman D. Vanover