Sunday, August 25, 2002

Coal Miners, an essay

August 25, 2002

After his discharge from military service in World War 2, my father qualified for a veteran's assistance loan to purchase equipment declared surplus after the war was over.  In 1946, he was able to buy an Allis Chalmers bulldozer and Northwest 80D power shovel and went into business surface (or strip) mining coal in central West Virginia .  He never much cared for the coal business as it was fraught with many risks.  He was a graduate civil engineer and, before the war, had surveyed and mapped underground coal mines.  His cousin had been a mine surveyor until an accident left him with a permanent limp.  That experience probably made my father's decision about his working in an underground coal mine.  

As for strip mining, it had its risks as well.  One of the first contracts my father received was to strip mine 100 acres of Pittsburgh coal.  After he uncovered several acres of the coal seam, he quickly became aware that a then-abandoned underground mine on the adjacent tract of land had "robbed" the very coal he had contracted to mine.  It was a case where termites ate one house and then went to the neighbor's before retreating.  With the coal reserves depleted by some 40%, he nearly went broke trying to recover what coal was left.  But such "robberies" weren't new or even isolated.  Unscrupulous operators would mine a particular land tract and then drain the company of its assets, caring little that they had robbed a neighboring farmer while he tended his crops and livestock on the surface.  When the discovery was made, the bandit was long gone.  The history of coal mining in West Virginia is chock full of stories like this one.  

Fortunately for my father, he had a few successful mining contracts and that allowed him to buy enough equipment to start building roads and highways, his true mission from the outset.  In 1950, he received his first highway contract--relocating the state highway that went through a small community, simply-named, "Number 9".  The road sign said "No. 9" and the community was the mining village that grew around Fairmont Coal Company's mine number 9 (now CONSOL Coal).

I still remember the place today just as when he took me there in the mid-1950's.  No. 9 was the birthplace of the legendary NFL linebacker, Sam Huff, so what is a dot on the map to you was something of a shrine to West Virginia football fans.  I also remember my father telling me how the mine war played out in No. 9 when the miners had fought to unionize many years earlier.  He told me many of the stories that he had learned from the townspeople during the year he worked rebuilding the roadway.  All I will tell you now is that it was a real war, with real bullets.

The No. 9 that you know today is not the one that I visited as a boy.  In 1968, the No. 9 mine exploded and some 70 miners died.  This incident is referred to as the Farmington disaster.  As deadly as it was, the No. 9 disaster was far from the worst coal mine disaster in our history.  The honor of that title goes to Fairmont Coal's No. 6 and No. 8 mines, located a few miles south of Farmington at Monongah.  In 1907, the mines at Monongah exploded.  Over 300 men died in that disaster.  While there was an exact count of the number of horses and mules in the mine at the moment of the explosion, there was no such record of miners and other workers inside the mine.  The death toll has been based on the number of caskets ordered but nobody truly knows how many bodies were not recovered.  Even so, the known death toll is the highest for a US mining disaster.

In each case, Monongah and Farmington , the mines were modern operations for their era.  The Monongah mines even used ventilation fans, a rarity at that time.  But the coal seam contained a large amount of free methane gas.  And as the Farmington investigation would show, the weather conditions and barometric pressure of the air outside of the mine has a direct effect on methane gas buildup within a mine.

When the Farmington mine exploded, the then-president of the United Mine Workers of America, W. A. "Tony" Boyle, visited the site--some 2 days later.  Mr. Boyle was no friend of the coal miner even though he was their elected leader.  His remarks at the site consisted mainly of "accidents will happen" and then he left.  Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, a reform candidate, would later challenge Tony Boyle for the union presidency.  In late 1969, Boyle ordered his henchmen to kill Yablonski (Yablonski's wife and daughter were also murdered) and he was later convicted of the crimes.  Tony Boyle died in prison in 1985.  

Something had to be done about mine safety and the Farmington disaster was the catalyst for change.  In 100 years of underground coal mining, neither the industry nor organized labor had been up to the task of developing and running effective safety programs.  To be sure, there were safety laws on the books and there were safety-oriented mines and miners.  But with the Farmington disaster, the US Congress enacted legislation that placed the burden of mine safety more squarely on federal agencies.  This had the effect of removing safety issues from the bargaining table.  Instead of a "company position" or a "union position", safety rules became a "federal position."  While waving the federal wand is far from a perfect solution, the legislative changes did level the playing field.

At the Farmington disaster, most of the same rescue techniques and resources used at the Quecreek mine rescue were already in place.  Trained mine rescue teams entered the No. 9 mine but the fire and smoke inside the mine made their efforts all but impossible.  The rescue teams drilled holes to pump air into the mine, but again, the fire negated these efforts.  The rescue teams lowered microphones into the mine to listen for sounds of life.  They were able to rescue a few miners by hoisting them to the surface with a crane and lift bucket.  But in the end, the decision was made to seal the mine and extinguish the fire.  The difference between Farmington and Quecreek was the difference between fire and water.

The Quecreek mine rescue was certainly not the first successful mine rescue; many other cases abound.  But what made Quecreek so different was that the American public saw round-the-clock television news coverage.  In the past, only the miners' families waged a vigil and news coverage consisted of spot reports and updates.  For perhaps the first time in history, the Quecreek viewers got to see and eventually meet the nine coal miners without the familiar backdrops of the past.  Always in the past, television news gave us a stilted backdrop for these stories about miners--the coal miner on strike, or the smokestack pollution, or the acid water flowing into a stream, and so on.  But on this one occasion, America was introduced to nine everyday men, men who weren't so different from any other group of hard working men.

  At the press conference, the inevitable question was asked of the Quecreek miners: Do you plan to return to work in the coal mine?  Some answered, "No."

In what may be the greatest irony in coal's history, the Quecreek rescue of nine trapped miners may actually spell the end of the underground coal mining industry.  This televised event, from start to finish, had to have impressed an entire generation of youngsters that coal mining is not a safe option for their employment future, regardless of how well the rescue plan worked.  We won't know for a decade or more if meeting nine miners in our living rooms robs the future of the next generation of miners.  But the possibility is certainly there. 

Like Rodney Dangerfield, coal has never gotten any respect.  Which is sad (for coal).  Had the resource been properly managed, we could have tapped the methane gas to heat homes or run our power plants.  Instead, we let it float away.  And we could have developed methanol [1] to power our cars.  Instead we are dependent on oil from the most unstable countries on the planet.  When we look at the financial cost of Enron's failure, or the tax subsidies being paid out in the current "Farm" bill for ethanol [2] production, or the petrodollar payments that prop up the various OPEC dictatorships, it gives one pause as to why we didn't do more with the one energy resource we know we can count on.  Coal, however, is often thought of as our "misery" fuel.  And while coal has caused no end of misery and pollution, we should not forget that humans will never again live at Chernobyl , the one nuclear disaster that eclipsed all of the coal mine disasters put together. 

If we ever do have to rely on coal for more than our current needs, then finding the miners to do the work will be a problem.  Employment in the eastern coal fields peaked in the mid-20th century when steam locomotives ran on the rails and domestic steel production was at an all-time high.  In the last five decades, bituminous coal mining employment has shrunk precipitously.  Productivity gains are part of the reason.  But also, air pollution laws have had a major effect by causing power plants to replace eastern coal with lower-sulphur western coal.

Advancing a mine requires skilled engineers, miners, electricians, and mechanics.  Whereas a coal miner once only needed to swing a pick and then shovel his coal into a cart, the mechanized mine requires teams of miners who are very sophisticated when it comes to doing what they do.  The Quecreek rescue showed us as to just how sophisticated the modern coal miner has become.

As was mentioned above, the Farmington disaster was a turning point.  Coal mining is still a hazardous job.  But in the three decades that have passed since Farmington , the industry has taken great measures to prevent another such calamity.  When we viewed the organization and teamwork of the rescuers at Quecreek, the results of millions of man-hours of safety training were evident.  It was said throughout the ordeal that "the miners did what they were supposed to do and the rescuers did what they were supposed to do."

  And now, Quecreek is a turning point.  Will we view the rescue as so much luck?  A "made-for-TV" rescue as it were?   Will we view the Quecreek rescue as the dawn of a new era in mining--an era where tragedy is conquerable?  Or will the kids who watched the whole 3-day episode on TV simply say, "Mining is not for me."? 

In forty years, we'll know which direction the nation turned when it arrived at Quecreek.  But for now, we are the ones who must answer the question, "Which way?"

[1]  Methanol--usually referred to as "wood alcohol" because it was a distillate from the early charcoal-making process.  Methanol is now made from natural gas or coal.

[2]  Ethanol--usually referred to as "grain alcohol".  In this case, made from corn.