Updating our view of coal miners
Last week was a terrible one for the coal mining industry. The loss of nearly 30 miners in an explosion deep inside a huge West Virginia mine simply should not happen, not with all the regulations in place and all the required safety equipment and techniques, including modern methods of ventilation that avoid large concentrations of explosive methane. When I heard about the accident in the Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine, I was shocked. I never expected such a large loss of life would ever happen again in one of our coal mines.
When an accident in an American coal mine occurs that results in killed or trapped coal miners, the major networks and radio stations start calling me for commentary. My grandfather and father were coal miners, but I’m called on mostly because I wrote a memoir set in West Virginia coal country that was made into the film “October Sky.” I usually agree to go on the programs and give background and context to the mining and rescue operations, but my real purpose is to take the opportunity to tell the public what kind of men and women still mine coal in our country and what life in their little towns is like.
It doesn’t take long into the interview before the host asks me something along the lines of, “Considering how dangerous the work is, why would anybody want to work in a coal mine?” In other words, how could anyone in this day and age be so stupid?
That’s when I get to educate the interviewer, pointing out that far from being a pick-and-shovel guy, most miners today work in a high-tech environment of electronic monitors, computers and complex machinery. They also possess a pride in their chosen occupation, not to mention a puckish humor and gentle nature. And they are certainly aware of the dangers of their workplace but love what they do. In other words, coal miners are modern Americans who, like many other Americans, probably have high-definition televisions in their dens. I also describe the towns in which they live, usually old villages set within the hollows of scenic, forested hills redolent of aromatic pine.
After I’m finished with my description of people and place as they actually are, the disappointment is almost palpable. That’s because most of the interviewers already have an idea of what life is like in a coal company town, or at least, they think they do. This is because of another company town, namely Hollywood. Over the years, the movies set in coal country have pretty well established how most Americans and the media view coal miners and their communities. “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Matewan” and, yes, “October Sky,” all telling stories of an era decades ago, are the films most of the interviewers have seen. Some of them even cite “How Green Was My Valley” as their reference, never mind that it was set in Wales a century ago.
Rather than the little towns in the hills I describe with their snowy white churches, interviewers want to hear how awful these places are, how gritty, ugly and dirty. They also want to hear how downtrodden, bitter and wretched coal miners are. I hate to disappoint them, but they just aren’t like that any more, and thank goodness they’re not.
The truth is, without the American coal miner and his willingness to work in his profession, we’d all be sunk. Coal provides well over 50% of our country’s electrical production and it also keeps the average price per kilowatt-hour cheap. In other words, coal is the backbone of our economy. When we turn on a light, use a computer, watch television or do anything using electricity, we should all thank the coal miners. We should also as a nation take it as our sacred duty to keep them safe, and that means supporting the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
MSHA is a powerful federal regulatory agency that sends its inspectors into mines on routine and surprise inspections. Much has been made of the citations given by MSHA inspectors to the Massey operation before this deadly explosion. Understanding is low in the media, however, on what these inspectors do. To me, they are heroes, and the best of them take no guff from mine owners. Smart mine owners and managers use these inspectors as a resource and fully comply with their recommendations. We don’t yet know if the mine owner and managers of the Massey mine were smart or dumb. The truth will come out.
A novel I had published last year -- set in a modern West Virginia coal town and presenting miners as they are today (not to mention a big methane explosion very similar to what happened last week) -- has led to a possible reality show. If it happens, viewers could see what miners are really like, including, in an unsparing way, the hazards of their jobs and the still pervasive problem of black lung disease. It would also show the healthy (and often dramatic) tension that exists between MSHA inspectors and company foremen and owners. Then maybe all Americans, including the media, would get a truer picture of mining.
Homer Hickam is the author of “Rocket Boys/October Sky,” “Red Helmet” and many other books.