The work starts at dawn, at dusk if you’re pulling graveyard. You crouch under a door that stands maybe hip-high and hop a flatcar that ferries you a mile, two miles, five miles, deep into the dark cool belly of the mountain.
It’s muddy inside, and cramped. The mine shaft is at most 3 1/2 feet tall. You crouched to get in and you stay crouched all shift, clawing coal from the mountain. There’s noise and dust and rock, everywhere. You suck coal into your lungs, and coal rains down on your face, and the noise and the dust and the rock pound you flat until the shift ends and you hop back on that car and ride out of the mountain, spent.
They need more coal miners here in Eastern Kentucky. Many more, hundreds more, if they are to capitalize on the energy crisis, if they are to take advantage of record coal prices, if they are to meet the demands of a president who has called for increased production and eased regulations that stand in the way.
The jobs are here. They pay better than most anything else in Appalachia.
But miners are telling their children: no way. No way will you spend your life crouching through a mountain, sucking dirt.
“I told my kids, I’d rather ‘em go out and pick up cans and bottles on the roadside than go into the coal mines,” said Robert Justice, who spent 26 years in the mines and has the X-rays to prove it--his lungs spotted white with coal dust, his back wrecked with three discs ruptured.
Mining has long been a proud family tradition in the hollows of Appalachia. Yet the collapse of local unions, the physical toll that the work exerts and a grim recognition that every boom will be followed sure as sunrise by a bust has prompted many miners to vow the tradition will stop with them.
“My boy was pointed in this direction, but I pointed him in another,” said Billy Leedy, who has worked the mines for all his son’s 18 years. “I told him there was no sense in killing himself for nothing.”
Leedy holds one of the most dangerous jobs underground. After others have gouged out the coal, he pins the roof of the mine to the rest of the mountain with giant bolts to prevent cave-ins. He earns $12.50 an hour. “I’ve had my legs broke, my arm cut off, my back broke,” he says matter-of-factly. He rolls up the sleeve of his work shirt to show off a powerful biceps laced with scars and stitches.
“Now they’re crying about how Pike County don’t have enough miners,” he says, bemused. “Well, no wonder.”
Truth is, though, despite such warnings from their elders, young men still head to the mines. They can sum up their motive in a single word: money. In the mines, even a high school dropout willing to work overtime can earn $50,000 a year. You can buy a nice house here for $50,000. Plus, other employment prospects are scarce. As one veteran miner put it, outside the coal fields, job options are “not much or nothing.”
Gov. Paul E. Patton has sought to expand opportunities, spending $75 million to build industrial parks across Appalachia. He has wooed a computer help-line service, a cellular phone company and a bakery that makes Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts--some 3,500 new jobs in all. Yet unemployment in some coal counties runs upward of 10%. Add in the many who have only part-time jobs, and up to 30% of the labor force in some counties may be looking for work.
Most mines here have enough employees to meet their long-term production contracts. But they are eager to mine extra coal to sell on the spot market. So they need more bodies, fast.
Spot prices shot to tantalizing highs during a cold snap in December and have stayed strong ever since. Add in President Bush’s plan to ease regulation of coal-burning power plants and the market looks better than it has in 20 years.
Other coal companies across the nation are holding production steady, concerned that if they mine too much, they’ll drive prices down. In Appalachia, though, there’s a push to seize the moment: Coal has been in such a slump for so long that folks want to make money while there’s money to make.
“We’ve been economically imprisoned in this area for so long. Now we’ve finally been turned loose,” said Bryan Taylor, who runs a miner training school in Inez, Ky.
Since the run-up in spot prices, Taylor’s classes have been packed. He’s training as many as 200 miners a month, triple his normal volume. His students are mostly young men, including many with college degrees who have abandoned white-collar careers.
“My parents are not too thrilled about it,” acknowledged Mark Mollett, 28, who quit a job as a youth counselor for the mines. “But it’s a good idea to get in right now.” And to stay in, he added, as long as the pay holds at $12 to $15 an hour.
Yet even with such gung-ho recruits, Taylor cannot turn out enough miners to satisfy local industry. Mines have advertised job openings on TV, even bumped up wages for new hires. The labor shortage remains so acute that some companies have expressed interest in bringing in miners from Mexico or Ukraine.
“It’s like standing outside a candy shop, looking in,” said Bill Caylor, executive director of the Kentucky Coal Assn. “We’d love to produce more, but we don’t have the people.”
Mining executives say they have ample labor elsewhere. In West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, for instance, unions maintain lists of laid-off workers eager to return to the mines.
In Kentucky, however, the miners’ union collapsed after a series of strikes and lock-outs in the 1980s. Many who remember the glory days of union influence disdain the jobs available today, which often carry skimpier benefits.
Other miners took early retirement after qualifying for disability payments under Kentucky’s generous black-lung benefits program in the early 1990s.
But perhaps the most alarming reason for the shortage--alarming from the coal companies’ perspective--is the cultural shift in mountain towns that once proudly sent generation after generation to dig the fuel that powered America. There’s more of an emphasis on schooling now, more colleges in the area and a statewide campaign pushing the message “Education pays.” Also, coal’s long skid has made everyone all too aware of mining’s boom-and-bust instability.
“Parents want their children to do better then they did,” Caylor said. “They’ve been hammering that message on their kids, and a lot of kids don’t want to work in the mines.”
Even in regions with adequate labor, coal executives fear this phenomenon. Within the next decade, the core of their work force will retire, and they’ll need to draw a new generation to the mines.
The key, they say, is to update mining’s image, to pass the word that it requires not just strong backs but sophisticated skills such as manipulating computerized and remote-controlled machines--and that it is safer than ever.
Miners get injured at a much lower rate than workers in construction, manufacturing, even retail. And mining fatalities have fallen steadily for a decade.
Still, the job exacts an undeniable toll. And there are fewer workers willing to pay it--fewer workers like Edward Hurley, who sat at a deli counter at 5 a.m. one recent day, downing biscuits and gravy to fuel up for his shift underground.
Hurley, 48, lost part of a finger in the mines. He broke his back and has been buried in several coal avalanches, once covered so thoroughly, he had to holler for a half-hour before his team could find him. His dad, a miner, died of black lung at 33. Yet Hurley would not consider working anywhere else.
He enjoys crawling into a mountain, stooping in the dark, cutting the coal that will light up America. He’s been at it 26 years. “Coal mining,” he says, “it’s in my blood.”