Monday, April 4, 2011

Me & Coal

I'm a West Virginian, but contrary to what some people prone to stereotypes might think, I didn't grow up near a coal mine (there are none in my home county). Not one of my family members has ever worked in the coal industry. However, I think all West Virginians realize that coal is inevitably entwined with our beloved state.

As a youngster in the late '60s and '70s, I used to love listening to broadcaster Jack Fleming describing the WVU football games on the radio. Because a major sponsor of these broadcasts was the West Virginia Coal Association, I grew to love the soaring choral voices in their “Coal is West Virginia” theme song as an associated part of Mountaineer football (I was glad the Coal Association revived the old theme song a few years ago). By the time I became a grad student at WVU in 1981, the radio stations in Morgantown still would frequently make shift announcements for various local coal mines, because the mines were probably the biggest employers in the area.

While getting my college education, I learned a great deal about the labor struggles in the coalfields, which seemed to be missing from my 8th grade West Virginia studies class. After reading her autobiography, I think Mother Jones was one of the most fascinating women in America. The movie “Matewan” can give you a quick introduction to this part of our history. Another formative experience for me relating to the coal industry was the book “Everything in its Path” by Kai Erickson. This award winning report on the Buffalo Creek disaster is one of the most captivating books I ever read.

A more recent influence on my interest in coal mining was the books of fellow NASA alum Homer Hickam. I loved his Rocket Boys book (being an avid model rocketeer in my youth as well), and ended up reading the whole Coalwood trilogy (Rocket Boys, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone). The movie “October Sky” was wonderful as well (even if it ended up getting filmed in Tennessee), so be sure to see it if you don't know what I'm talking about. I've had the good fortune to visit Coalwood, West Virginia a few times for the annual Rocket Boys reunion. We've also had the pleasure of hearing Homer speak at Ohio University in Athens and at West Virginia University in Morgantown, plus a chance meeting with him in Reagan National Airport in DC. You can tell that Coalwood was a magical place in its heyday. Like the nearby county seat of Welch (just up the road on WV Route 16—a great motorcycle road by the way), both were once booming, but have now gone bust. Like many places in West Virginia (e.g., the ghost towns one learns about when rafting the New River), once the coal ran out, there was not much left to sustain the communities.
Statue of a widow at the site of the worst coal disaster ever.

Like many West Virginia families, our summer trips often consisted of visits to our state parks and other tourist destinations. I've also written previously of my visits to the cemetery at Monongah, site of our nation's worst coal disaster, as well as to the statues of the Monongah Widow and the West Virginia Coal Miner's Memorial in Fairmont. My first real coal mine experience was riding in the little cars that take you into the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, not far off the West Virginia Turnpike. For many years, that was my only experience underground. It is a fascinating place, and does give one a good introduction. However, in 1992, I finally got to experience a real coal mine.

Leadership West Virginia is a program that brings together leaders from around the state and provide them with leadership training over the course of eight long weekends, each held in a different city of the state and covering a different topic. I was fortunate to get accepted into this program just shortly before I decided to run for the school board. I learned a lot and would highly recommend it to others.

When the 1992 Leadership West Virginia class visited Fairmont, there was a special outing for those interested to visit Consol Coal Company's Robinson Run Mine near Mannington. We were given about an hour of safety training and outfitted with the necessary equipment (helmet, gloves, etc.). Each of us were also given a numbered brass tag, which would be used to identify our body if a disaster would occur (!). We got onto an industrial style elevator, the cage door was shut, and began the VERY LONG ride down to the work area 1000 feet deep.

Upon reaching the bottom, a continuous mining machine was chewing into the face of the coal seam. I immediately became concerned when I saw sparks on occasion as the cutting wheels ate into the coal. Despite all I knew about coal dust being explosive, we were assured that it was something that happens down there due to the high concentrations of sulphur in the coal. Well, I guess if the workers were not worried about it, then maybe I shouldn't worry (but it still kept me on edge).

The first part of the tour showed us traditional mining, where they would cut swaths of coal but leave pillars in place to support the roof. We also got to see the white rock dusting, roof bolting operations to help prevent cave-ins, and learned about kettle bottoms (petrified trees) that are prone to falling. The complex series of conveyor belts that move the coal from the face to (eventually) the surface was also interesting. We then got into a mantrip (small rail car for moving between locations in this extensive labyrinth) to head to the other side where a new style of mining was being used. Halfway between the two operations, the supervisor stopped the vehicle and had us turn out the lights. With no other lighting whatsoever, and a thousand feet of earth between us and the surface, it was the ABSOLUTE most blackest black that I could ever imagine.

The new area was using a longwall mining machine, which required less labor and produced more coal. The cutter moved back and forth over maybe a 100 foot swath, shearing off a few inches of coal with each pass. There was no coal wasted for use as pillars—everything it could reach was being removed. Therefore, the machine and its human handlers were all close to the face, with nothing remaining behind them as it slowly inched through the seam on mechanical feet. Very strong steel roofs protected the long skinny machine from cave-ins, and humans were sure to stay under the roof and not venture back into the void behind it. Although it didn't happen when we were there, roof falls are inevitable in a longwall operation. The idea is to mine all the coal, stay close to the cutter, conveyor belt, and its protective roof, and then let the roof fall behind you. It happens from time to time with a huge rumbling and whoosh of air. [I'm glad it didn't fall when we were there!]

Finally, my foray into coal mining came to an end, and we took the long elevator journey to the top. I am very glad that I got to experience a real working coal mine, and I thank Consol Coal and Leadership West Virginia for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I never signed up to be an official “Friend of Coal” and plant a yard sign or sport a bumper sticker proclaiming such, but I do know what it is like to be underground. Coal mining presents a mixed bag for West Virginia, so I'm not ready to be a company shill. However, I do appreciate the hard work that goes into creating the electricity that I am using to write this essay. Let's just hope that West Virginia can diversify its economy and preserve its ecology so that the whole state doesn't look like the ghost towns left behind once the coal inevitably runs out. I close with the lyrics to the WV Coal Association jingle (it sounds better than it reads):

When we go down deep through the dark today, we come up with a light for America! Coal is West Virginia, coal is me and you. Coal is West Virginia, we’ve got a job to do. Coal is energy, we need energy.

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