At one time coal mining was a profession made noble 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 didn't have to face a life working in the darkness of a coal mine. My brother and I both tried and 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. 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.
Living in an economically depressed area came with its challenges however. After ten years living paycheck to paycheck and climbing the corporate ladder at a local call center, I realized I would not have a retirement to speak of. During my time off I completed application after application, taking and passing test after test, sometimes driving as far as three hours away to take a physical, all in hopes of obtaining a career with a railroad, phone company, or power utility--the best jobs in the region to offer a retirement. Over the course of three years I never beat out the nepotism and good ole boy systems that ensured the hiring of family members and friends. It became apparent that to raise my family in the hills of home, I would have to follow my father's footsteps and embrace the life of a coal miner.
After avoiding the mines for 10 years, I tried to find every ounce of pride in the profession that I could--to find ways to overcome my feelings of failure in life--attempting to recall the ways it had made the men in my family happy.
After a year and a half of begging and pleading for a job in the mines, I began my mining career working 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. It wasn't bad work, but things weren't as I had expected them, at least not as compared to the way my father spoke of mining before he was disabled.
By the time I became a miner, a "look out for #1 attitude" had taken place of the underground "families" that used to make up coal crews. Coal miners no longer stuck together like they used to, they no longer seemed to care about helping one another unless it benefited themselves in some way. There were exceptions to the rule, people who did take time to care about their fellow man, but those men, like me, were taken advantage of and abused by cut throats looking to get ahead. One shift I said to an older miner, "I thought coal mining used to be fun." He replied, "It used to be, but now they want us to run coal so fast we don't even have time to be tired, let alone be friends."
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.
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). I worked on #4 section where they'd 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|
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.
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 our situation, to rethink life and happiness. After a little over three years working underground, I left the mines and we started a new path in life.
In the months that followed we became more involved with the local non-profits and learned a great deal about the problems we had experienced as a result of the coal industry, but overlooked in the pursuit of money and good benefits. 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 the place to raise our children. The coal industry's grip on our mountain home is to tight. 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 saw what we let loose in the mines day after day, pulling gear case plugs and letting loose thousands--yes 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 and the bleak future they would have by attending underfunded schools. We knew they would eventually face the same economic challenges. Though I wanted to stay and fight I knew we would only be harming our children to keep them in the coalfields.
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 (thanks to high property taxes) 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 can 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 Appalachian. I am often filled with rage at the terrible injustices perpetuated by their pursuit of profit: injustices that push coal miners to the brink of disasters like Upper Big Branch. I've realized 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 destroy their homes. I've realized how the worst food is brought to the Appalachian people, how coalfield grocery stores stock their shelves with the crap left over from the bigger cities.
I've seen how all along, nothing good has ever come to the Appalachian people at the hands of the coal industry. I even see how coal companies manipulate people into fighting amongst themselves rather than for the benefit of their neighbors, even going as far as to rally behind causes that will destroy our children's future for the sake of more profit for Wall Street barons.
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 for our fellow man, 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.