My Story

I am a father, a husband, and at one time a fourth generation underground coal miner. I grew up on Georges Fork like the seven generations who came before me. I am a mountaineer with a deep love for the mountains of home, a love that spans many generations, going as far back as to my 6th great grandfather who fought at the battle of Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War, and, like most people living in Central Appalalchia, my family's life has been bound to the coal.

At one time coal mining was a profession made honorable by hard working Appalachian coal miners, people like my father, both of my grandfathers, and my great grandfather, and several uncles, all who loved their families dearly enough to sacrifice their bodies in hopes of providing a better life for them. It was a profession they made the best of, standing shoulder to shoulder with other mountain families through decades of struggle against the greed of wealthy coal operators. It was not a life they asked for, it was a life that had been forced upon them by the industrialization of a nation, and yet they embraced it while always looking towards a better future for their children.

My generation was always told to do well in school so we wouldn't have to face a life working in the darkness of a coal mine. My brother and I both did decently well in high school, but neither of us went on to college. My brother joined the Air Force where he remains today, and I chose to forge my own path which often led to failure, working two and sometimes three jobs a day before eventually landing a steady job at a local call center. I started a family with the hopes of raising my children in much the same way I had been, romping through the woods, learning how to hunt and raise a garden, learning the same values of honesty and compassion, developing a deep respect for all life within the mountains, and hopefully even finding the same rewards I found in a hard days work.

Choices


Living in an economically depressed area came with its challenges however. Fixing what needed to be fixed on the old home place and raising two kids stretched our monthly budgets thin, even despite having moved up the ranks at the call center to become a supervisor. There was no hope of putting back for a retirement, let alone for the kids college, and so, during my time off, I completed application after application for railroads, phone companies, and power companies; the jobs that still offered a decent retirement and paid enough to give my family a decent life. I took and passed test after test and sometimes drove as far as three hours away to take a physicals, but I never could seem to get my foot in the door.  After 10 years of avoiding working in the coal mines, I had to make the same decision many new fathers had to make in Appalachia, stay and go to work in the coal mines--or leave.

I had already left a few times when I was a teenager and knew the world wasn't kind to someone without a degree or professional license. I also didn't have much desire to leave everything I ever knew, especially when it came to moving the kids away from family. It was decided and I began to rethink the idea of being a coal miner, considering the same profession that gave my father and grandfathers so much pride.

Unfortunately, my decision came at a time when the coal market was down, forcing me to beg and plead for a job in the mine. It took over a year and a half, but I finally started my coal mining career for an out-of-town construction subcontractor refurbishing and installing escape hoists, mine elevators, and mine fans. I spent six months traveling all over Central Appalachia, living in run down hotel rooms away from my family, watching pill head co-workers crush Loritabs and Oxys and snort them through rolled up dollar bills. It was a miserable life, often working 12 and 16 hours a day for days on end. I eventually landed a job in a mine close to home where I had spent the majority of my job seeking efforts, having done everything I could to suck up to the bosses to the point of even bringing doughnuts one morning and fixing coffee.  They were needing roof bolters more than anything, and so, within the first few weeks, I found myself pinning top as a red hat and running a shuttle car when we were pulling pillars.

Boy was I into too. Lord there was parts of me that absolutely loved it. When we went out shopping on my days off, I made sure I wore my company hat that said Deep Mine 26. I wanted people to know I was a coal miner and that I worked hard everyday, risking life and limb to provide for my family. I enjoyed it when people's eyes nearly popped out of their heads when I'd answer questions like, "How far down do you work?" or I'd tell them about pulling pillars.

Even though I was enjoying it, I still knew it wasn't like it'd been when my father and grandfathers were coal miners.

My uncle, who was still working in the mine and tried to talk me out of going underground, gave me a warning. He told me, "You have to look out for #1." At first I didn't realize what he meant, but it didn't take me long to figure out. I grew up hearing about how close coal miner's were. Coal mining for my father and grandfathers was like having a second family to go to each day. They took care of one another. They stood up for one another. It's not like that now.  Coal miners work together, and are pretty good friends to some extent, but there is no family like before.

All my preconceived ideas of what it would be like to mine coal had come from a time when the union was strong and the majority of coal miners still knew to put back money and how to weather layoffs and strikes. They were compelled to fight for the common good rather than putting themselves and their family's wants before the next man. So much had changed. You had to look out for number #1 or else you'd end up suffering. I never had it in me to be selfish.

After working on a coal crew I was eventually accepted into the electrical training program where, after a year working as a repairman trainee on and off the hootowl (3rd shift), I got my electrical papers (certification). It came at a price though. What little sense of camaraderie you found on a coal crew was non-existent. The competition and back stabbing was horrible.

The Fault Line


 I was put on #4 section where the company had been trying to mine their way through a fault line to get to another boundary of coal. It took over a year and a half, and at one point we didn't belt up but once in 8 months. It was a sandstone roll that rose to 35 foot in one break, and went left to right starting in #1 entry and peaking out in #6. After we broke the cutter arm on two continuous miners and had been setting 500 bits a shift, welding bit blocks on and breaking miner chains on a daily basis, management finally decided to bring in air drills and two diesel compressors to drill and shoot our way through bastard sandstone. The top was loose, ranging from from 15 to 25 foot in height, held together with hundreds of glue bolts and meshing. They were to afraid to glue it I guess, fearing it would just make one solid chunk that would fall out and shut the section down completely. All the inspectors would say to the bosses was, "Your doing the best you can with it."

Pink lines/numbers represent topographical underground elevations
That one year on the fault line felt like it took years off my life, dodging rocks , constantly repairing the old equipment which was never meant to cut bastard sandstone, let alone operate on a steep slope (Ever see a continuous miner pushing a roof bolter to the top of a face and the miner cut loose and slide backwards? Everyday?) What's worse is the company only gave us a skeleton crew, 4 to 5 men working us 10 hours a day 5 days a week, and a boss only 28 years old trying to prove himself, laying the blade to the repairman (me) when he didn't meet his goals.

Even when I knew what they were doing was wrong, I'd never stand my ground, I would never go into the office and cut someones throat no matter how much they deserved it or how much it would have made me look better. I put my faith in hoping that someone would realize the lies. I suppose, in many ways, it was my own damn fault life was so rough in the mines. I look back often and think of how I should have stuck as many knives in the backs of my enemies as they had me, but that was not how I was raised. I did not want to become them.

We finally pushed through the fault and the conditions got better, but after a year on #4 section, I was moved back to hootowl, moved from section to section, crew to crew. That's how I'd spend the rest of my time working underground.

The Union


Some may ask, "What about the union?" Early on I had looked for help from the union, but the United Mine Workers had become as much of a business as the business I worked for. I called and invited organizers from the Castlewood office into my home. They came looking like insurance salesmen: brilliant white teeth, $40 hair styles, polo shirts and expensive looking leather shoes. I found out that everything my fathers and forefathers had fought for was gone, corrupted, benefiting the few at the top rather than the many.

Eventually I heard that some non-profit organizations like Appalachian Voices were trying to help coal miners and their families by bringing communities back together to fight the coal companies for a decent life. I began talking to them and writing about my experiences, doing what I could to bring good change back into the Appalachian coal mines, thinking maybe it would even spread outwards to everyone and make Appalachia a place worth living again. But the rug would be jerked out from under me and my family one summer night in July.

Our lives were turned upside down in the course of just one night. We suffered a great loss that could have been much worse. It caused me and my wife to rethink "life." After a little over three years working underground, I left the mines and we started a new path.

In the months that followed we became more involved with the local non-profit grass roots organizations, and learned more than we would have honestly liked too. It as as if we had the blinders taken off of us and we could see much much more: the economic injustice, the political injustice, the sickness, and the poor shape of the educational systems. The more we learned the more we began struggling with the decision to move out of the valley my family had called home for nearly 200 years. When we thought of the kids, our minds were made up.

Georges Fork is no longer a good place to raise children. Most of the mountains up and down the valley are gone or are going. The mono-economy created by the industry has lead to a socioeconomic system that tears communities apart. Drug abuse is running rampant, schools are not receiving the funding they need. Teachers struggle daily to make ends meet and work with fewer and fewer resources. Healthcare back home is a travesty with the only hospital in the county having been reduced to a "pack and ship" facility to stabilize patients before putting them on med flight.

Cancer rates and other debilitating diseases are increasing back home, and while many argue the reasons, I know what we let loose in the mines day after day, pulling gear case drain plugs and letting loose thousands of gallons of used gear oil loose on the mine floor each year. I know what happens on strip mines when it comes time to drain the oil on massive diesel equipment and a mechanic is pushed for time. I saw over a hundred gallons of used hydraulic oil flowing down our creek and into the river that flows into our municipal water supply. I know what is in coal slurry and where the impoundments are that still leach out water into our streams. I know where slurry is still pumped into the mines where it gets into the water tables. My family had been dependent upon the municipal water since 1999 when the family spring we used for four generations had turned into acid mine drainage as A&G Coal cut the mountain down and filled the adjacent valley.

The more we opened our eyes the more we realized the problems our children were being left with. We knew they would eventually face the same economic challenges. We knew we were risking their health. I wanted to stay and fight but we knew we would only be harming our children to keep them in Georges For.

For our children's sake we moved just outside of Eastern Kentucky where the difference in their lives has been like night and day. The schools are well funded and the teachers are eager to teach. Even my wife and I have found our way back to school as full time college students, and though we have an income that is less than 1/5th  what we had while I was working in the mines, we have learned that there is much more to being happy than having nice things.

Still, I feel homesickness for the mountains and people who I grew up with, many of which are now gone or have changed to the point that we no longer recognize them. I have begun to understand even more about how the coal industry has affected our lives and the way they exploit everyone in Appalachia. I am often filled with rage at the terrible injustices perpetuated by the industry's pursuit of profit, pushing production beyond the safety of coal miners and the environment.

I've witnessed how the coal industry infiltrates government and funds political campaigns, how they stifle economic development to keep people poor and desperate enough to work in coal mines and support their causes. Now I have to say something about it.


At the suggestion of some of my good friends at Appalachian Voices, I created this blog "The Thoughtful Coal Miner" hoping to shed light on these and many other problems that plague our mountain home. Together with friends who share the same compassion towards all of creation, we continue to make connections in other places, with other people whose lives seem helplessly intertwined with extractive industries, industries which know no bounds in abusing their political and economic powers.

4 comments:

  1. Cancer rates are high everywhere because people eat sugar and carbs! NOT natural for human bodies. People in Appalachia eat more of it than anyone. Not counting smoking and drinking more than normal. Damn you are so confused.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment, it caused me realize a few areas I could expand on. Please re-read the page and tell me what you think.

      And I agree diet and exercise, as well as tobacco and alcohol use, are definately contributing factors to the increasing cancer rates specific to coal producing communities, but there is evidence of cancer clusters (for instance all the men my father worked with that have died of cancer from the same mining complex) as well. The poisons that have been left behind by coal mining and continue to be left behind by coal mining, are finding their way into our water sources in a way that is cumulative. We are only beginning to see the health impacts.

      Negative health impacts, including pre-mature deaths and increased cancer rates, also come from a lack of good health care and healthy living campaigns, both drastically reduced in an area held in poverty due to an intnentional mono-economy being perpetuated by coal companies and coal politics.

      So no, it's not just unhealthy eating, it's many things, both environmental and lifestyle based, and all of them can be linked right back to the coal industry.

      Thanks,
      Nick

      Delete
    2. Nick, I can't help but think that you must have lost your job. It's pretty obvious that you are very bitter toward coal mining. There are still a lot of people working in the mines and your opinions are very hurtful. You make it sound like everyone is a criminal. What about your dad and pap paw. Were they criminals too. There are plenty of mines that do things right. Sounds to me like you should have manned up and walked out instead of dumping oil in the mines. You are not a man of integrity. You are a very weak minded person with a personal agenda. You have no concern for the men and woman that still go to work in the mines everyday. I kinda feel sorry for you. All you care about is Nick. You want attention and you will take it anyway you can get it. Really it wouldn't matter if you were laid off from NASA. You would put the blame of them for doing everything wrong. Fact is, your too screwed up in the head to work for anyone. A normal man would move on for the sake of his integrity and family name. Find another job and prove you are good a something.

      Delete
    3. I more or less responded to you via my latest post "Going Against the Grain."

      Delete