A coal miner's son

Tuesday, May 4, 1999, 1 mile inside Cook Mountain, Wharton, West Virginia - Randy Nelson does the same work his father did. That is, he breaks the skin of this Earth and crawls below. He digs his way inside and harvests a mineral millions of years old. He digs for miles, into the darkest, loneliest reaches of Man's planet, and returns with a bounty vital to our nation's survival. In doing this work, he is carrying on a family tradition, a once very strong, very dark tradition with only a few embers remaining from its burning past.

Born and raised in West Virginia as the son of a coal miner, Nelson first put on his miner's hat when he was 20 years old, not because it was the only job in town, but because it was a better paying one. "If you weren't gonna go to college and get some kind of specialized training," he says. "coal mining was where the money was." Today, coal miners can earn $50,000 a year and more, with respectable benefits and pensions. His job is far less hazardous and much more equitable than his father's was, but anytime you go a mile into the Earth to work, you take with you inevitable risks.

Randy Nelson keeps
America's lights burning.
At 44 years old, Nelson operates the machine which tears coal away from its home for eons, and he does enjoy it. "It's kinda' hard for someone who's never had the feeling," he says. It just sort of gets in your blood, you know. I'll stay with it as long as I got a job, you know, up until retirement."

My day in the coal mines began with a training class - Phil Ball shows me how to use a self-rescue unit, a 5-pound, canteen-sized device that I am to keep with me at all times. If somehow the air becomes contaminated in the mine, I will need to use this to breathe. Essentially a strong balloon and a CO2 cartridge, I am to yank open the container, clutch the mouthpiece in my mouth and inflate the bag. I will carry the whole affair with me and must not remove the mouthpiece - no matter what - until I am out of this hole. This little thing should have enough air for an hour, unless I panic and start breathing like some dog running after a fire truck. I listen carefully, and when Ball sees I have grasped this concept, he presents me with a Certificate of Training from the U.S. Department of Labor. It is pink, and I wonder what it would taste like on our 8th day trapped in there.

My escort today is Greg Patterson, the Vice President of Long Branch Energy, the company which began mining this seam of coal six years ago, and is nearly finished with it. Patterson is the son, of a son, of a son, of a son of a coal miner. "We're pretty proud of what we've done for this country," he says.

Ball, Patterson and I climb into an electric coalman's car, or onto it, actually. The car is basically four small wheels holding a flatbed car of batteries and two stadium seats, and we ride nearly lying down. "You're not claustrophobic, are you?" Patterson asks me. He opens a large, swinging door, the size of a garage, and Ball drives us into the black hole. He closes that door and things get pretty dark. Thirty yards later, Patterson opens a second door and we pass through. He closes it behind us, and things get very dark. This double door system helps control the air flow provided by powerful fans, which pump 1,000 cubic feet of air through the mine every second.

The only light now, is from our car's headlamps and our headlamps, which are actually mounted on our heads. They only shine a few dozen yards, though, and beyond that could very well be the end of the Earth. Close your eyes, crawl head-first into a sleeping bag, step into a closet and close the door, and you could be in a coal mine. This car will take us more than a mile into this darkness, and when we're ready, it will take us back out. "It will take us back out, won't it, Phil?" I ask, with a mask of humor.

Green and yellow reflectors tell us we are on the main escapeways, as we hum along at 5 mph. To reduce the risk of fire, the miners spray crushed limestone, like a white paint, on the ceiling and walls. Without this, the coal could burn up the entire shaft faster than your two legs could ever take you, and hotter than the Hell you might be trying to avoid. The ceiling is much smoother than I had imagined, and it nearly looks like a ceiling in an old, concrete building. A greaseboard shows data from a fire inspector's hourly readings on air quality.

First, you notice the darkness, then you notice the cool air - in the low 60's throughout the year, says Patterson - then you notice the quiet. There is the gentle hum of the conveyor belt, and when you escape that, there is nothing. There is only solid rock above and around you, and there is nothing but hard, quiet silence; the innocent sound of your own breath is the only sign of life.

They didn't need machines a century ago, they had men - thousands of them, and if one man could shovel a bin of coal in an hour, one hundred men could shovel one hundred bins. You could own a machine, back then, but you could also own a man. Millions of European immigrants fed the United States industrial machine, and coal mining was a powerful and abusing industry. Put a man in debt to you and keep him there. Give him a home and take a part of his pay for it, sell him groceries and clothing for another part, and for what he has left, rent him the very tools he uses to shovel your coal.

Coal mining is still a fairly dangerous job, but a comparatively safe one. Several things have helped the miners' cause: Unions - The United Mine Workers Union has given them a stronger voice with the mining companies. Government - Both the federal and state governments regulate and assist mines for safety. Technology - This has made the jobs less labor-intensive. A miner today can yield many times what a miner in 1910 could, needing fewer miners, which companies can better afford to protect. Mistakes - Many have been made, and much has been learned from them.

Making a Miner Shake in his
Steel-toe Boots

Mine safety has greatly improved, but it is still a dangerous vocation. Here is what to fear and respect in there:

Methane gas - Cows make it, so does coal. When this gas builds up, it becomes a dangerous explosive - ask any cow. No smoking is allowed in the mine, especially in winter, when the gas escapes the coal more easily.

Coal dust - When the air is dry, as in winter, dust flies. Modern techniques keep the dust down, but it is still dangerous. Coal, as many know, is very flammable, and the dust can ignite like a gunpowder.

Roof Collapse - They work with thousands of tons of earth above them, heavy stone, which gravity would love to pull down on top of them and crush them like ants in the road.

Machinery - It is heavy, packed with high voltage and designed to destroy. Step in its way and you're next.

If I decide to become a miner, I will have to take forty hours of safety training, then I will apprentice for six months, before I receive a Miner's Certificate - I already have the snappy suit.
Patterson explains an even newer technology being used today, called "long-wall mining" where a machine runs back and forth along a wall, scraping coal off as it goes. Like most miners, Patterson won't look at me as he talks, but he turns his head to a side and glances up at me often. If he were to turn his head toward me, his lamp would shine in my eyes, and miners don't like that - nobody likes that.

The way you dig a coal mine, you create a grid, because you clear out a main path, about thirty feet wide, which can go for miles into the mountain. Then you dig sideways every fifty to one hundred feet, and other paths alongside. When you're done with this, it looks like a city, with avenues and streets, and pillars of coal for buildings. Then you slowly remove the pillars, and you run as your city collapses behind you, which is what they are doing here, below Cook Mountain.

"I wish you'd been up here around ten minutes ago, you'd have seen everybody running - especially me!" says Gary Gillanwater, the Section Foreman. They had just exploded a pillar, and when you're messing with something that old and brittle, there's no telling what it will to do. "You pretty well know when it's gonna stop, but there's no exact science to it," he says.

We go to a place where the pillars have been destroyed, and the ceiling has caved in, some eighty stories below the green grass above. It is a dark, jumble of stones piled into nowhere. "Two months ago, this was a place no man had ever been," says Ball. "Now it's a place no man will ever go."

This is how it all works - First, a miner operates a machine called a "continuous miner" which has a huge, rotating drum, with carbide-tipped teeth, and eats away at a wall of coal like a snowblower in light powder. That machine pours the gravel-sized coal into one of three shuttle cars, which will carry 10 - 13 tons of coal to the loader. This car is operated by a driver, and is powered by a long, retractable extension cord, like on an old vacuum cleaner. The loader holds the coal and slowly pours it onto the the conveyor belt, which seemingly effortlessly, carries it over one mile, out of the mine. This Long Branch mine shaft, known simply as #18, will yield about 3,000 raw tons of this half-coal, half-rock mix today.

The coal is stored temporarily in a silo, then conveyed to the preparation plant. The coal and rock are separated using methods which rely on gravity (coal is lighter than rock). The crushed rock is disposed of, and the coal is loaded into railroad cars.

All of this technology is not very new, but has been improved, greatly reducing the number of men needed inside a mine. In the 1920's, mines started using conveyor belts, according to Patterson, eliminating the need for a small railroad of coal cars entering and leaving the mine. In the 1930's they began bringing coal to the belts with shuttle cars, eliminating the need for men to carry it there. In the late 1940's, he says, they began using a machine to pull the coal off the wall, eliminating the need for many men with shovels and pickaxes. The latest technology is the mobile roof support, a set of hydraulic jacks mounted together to make something about the size of a minivan, which costs $350,000 and can support a roof no number of men could hold up.

The second shift arrives, and everyone congregates around the power station, which is also their lunchroom. The tunnel is a mess of coveralls, lunch pails and conversation. Details of the day, both "inside" and "outside" good jokes and good news, bridge the two crews as one prepares to go home and the other settles in for a day's work.

Mine your business*
The average weekly wage for a coal miner is $968.45, more than twice that of the average West Virginian worker.

Of all the coal exported from the U.S., half (38.4 million tons in 1997) is from West Virginia.

West Virginia coal produces 99% of WV electricity and 56% of the U.S. electricity.

617 WV mines yielded nearly 182 million tons of coal in 1997.

In one hour in 1950, an underground coal miner could collect about 1,400 pounds of coal. Today, he can collect more than 7,600 pounds.

In 1910, 68,000 employees mined just under 60 million tons of coal. In 1997, only 18,000 employees mined over three times that amount.

The average price for a ton of WV coal in 1997 was $26.64.

West Virginia produced 16% of U.S. coal. Only Wyoming produces more.

* Information from the 1998 WV Coal Assn. "Coal Facts."

On the station (roughly the size of an MG convertible filled with cement) is a microwave oven, coffee maker and various lunch pails for the two crews. The traditional miner's lunch pail, like Carl's, shown at right, is a round, aluminum pail, about 11" tall. The lid can be filled with water and secured to the bottom, with a smaller lid to cover the food.

The miners have very reliable communication with the outside, via a hard-line telephone and many battery powered, radio phones. These are used in daily operations, but are invaluable should a man need to be rescued. Not only can they get help more quickly, but they can talk with EMTs and physicians in the interim.

Everything is electric down here; from the continuous miner and coal cars, to the feeder, the scoop and the mile-long conveyor belt. Everything, from the microwave oven to the coffee maker is powered by a charging station, which is fed by a cable carrying 7200 volts AC deep into this mountain. This cable is provided its energy by a power generating plant which, of course, is fueled by coal.

A great hazard of the coal miner's job was "black lung" caused by decades of breathing in coal dust. "We don't have near the dust that they had even 25 years ago," says Patterson. First, they circulate air through the mine, second, the machines work to inhibit dust, through collection and use of water. The air is so clean, that some of the miners don't wear respirators, which, of course, get in the way of chewing tobacco.

Why here? Why isn't there coal in Florida? After all, coal is simply crushed plant material, and there is certainly enough of that in Florida. The answer is protection. Plant material washes away after it dies, whereas in the mountains of Appalachia, glaciers put rocks everywhere, blocking the plants in for millions of years.

In the past fifteen years, Patterson tells me, the industry has grown four-fold, with only half the employees. Area colleges have degrees in mining, which is a much more technical vocation today. But, with all the technology, and even with great improvements in labor relations, coal mining is still a man's job. "There were some women hired in the seventies," Patterson says. "But they tended to get out of the work force fairly quickly. He adds that there are still women supervisors and engineers.

The entire climate has changed in this industry, and for the better. Where once men where indentured to the company, and the entire family was engaged in mining - it was the women's job to create more miners, and boys would start shoveling coal before they were teenagers - now it is pretty much just another job. Where once mining towns were isolated societies with moving black ore their only priority, miners now own homes in towns and on farms and wherever they choose. Where once amateur baseball teams were the only form of family entertainment and employee morale, mining families, if there still is such a thing, lead lives integrated into the "outside" world.

Randy Nelson has a 20 year-old daughter and a 15 year-old son. He doesn't think his son wants to be a miner, "and I don't want him to, either," he says. But he does enjoy his job, if for no other reason, but merely to do it well. He enjoys a day of good productivity, a day when he pulls a little extra coal from the Earth, and makes the light of America shine a little brighter.

Phillip Ball, 3rd generation coal miner
Greg Patterson, 5th generation coal miner
Gary Gillenwater, 3rd generation coal miner
Randy Nelson, 2nd generation coal miner
Walter Burns, 6th generation in coal industry.

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