At one time I was the fifth generation of my family to be an underground coal miner. Like the seven generations who came before me, I grew up on Georges Fork with a deep love for the mountains of home. It’s hard to explain why we love the mountains so much. Perhaps its our familiarity with the land, with the streams and the ridge lines, or perhaps its the way the mountains intertwine with our family history going back so many generations.
Times were much different for my earliest forefathers though. I doubt any of them could have imagined what lay beneath the lands they farmed and hunted on, let alone how the coming generations would suffer as a result of it. If they had, they would not have traded the mineral rights for 12 rifles and 13 hogs to give to their children.
At one time coal mining was a profession made honorable by hard working Appalachian coal miners—people like my father, both of my grandfathers, my great grandfather, great great grandfather, and several uncles. They all loved their families dearly enough to sacrifice their bodies in hopes of providing a better life for them. It was a profession they made the best of, standing shoulder to shoulder with other mountain families through decades of struggle against the greed of coal operators. It was not the life they asked for, it was a life forced upon them by the industrialization of a nation. Still, they embraced it as well as they could while looking towards a better future for their children. That is why my generation was always told to do well in school.
When it came to my brother and I, we both did decently well in high school, but neither of us went on to college. My brother joined the Air Force where he remains today, and I chose to forge my own path which often led to failure, working two and sometimes three low wage jobs a day before eventually landing a steady job at a local call center. My wife and I started a family with the hopes of raising our children in much the same way I had been raised: romping through the woods, learning how to hunt and raise a garden, learning the same values of honesty and compassion, developing a deep respect for all life within the mountains, and hopefully even finding the same rewards I found in a hard days work.
Living in an economically depressed area came with its challenges however. Fixing what needed to be fixed on the old home place while raising two kids stretched us thin. Despite having moved up at the call center to become a supervisor, we were still living paycheck to paycheck and ever increasing health insurance rates forced us to put the kids on the state health insurance. There was no hope of putting back a college fund for the kids, let alone a retirement. During my time off I searched desperately for a better paying job, filling out application after application for railroads, phone companies, and power companies; all the jobs that still offered a decent retirement with somewhat comfortable pay. I took and passed employment tests and sometimes drove three hours away to take physicals, but I never could seem to get my foot in the door. After so many failed attempts, it became overwhelmingly apparent.If I wanted to raise my children in the mountains of home, if I wanted a retirement and to give them a somewhat comfortable life, I’d have to do what I’d avoided for 10 years—mine coal.
Unfortunately, my decision came at a time when the coal market was down, forcing me to beg and plead for a job in the mines. It took over a year and a half, but I finally started my coal mining career for an out-of-town construction subcontractor refurbishing and installing escape hoists, mine elevators, and mine fans. I spent six months traveling all over the Appalachian coalfields, living in run down hotel rooms away from my family, watching pill head co-workers crush Loritabs and Oxys and snort them through rolled up dollar bills. It was a miserable life, often working 12 and 16 hours a day for days on end. I eventually landed a job in a mine close to home where I had spent the majority of my job seeking efforts, having done everything I could to suck up to the bosses. I was even known to bring them doughnuts and fix them pots of coffee. When I was finally hired, you couldn’t believe how happy I was, and how much I felt I needed to prove myself after sucking up so hard. They were needing roof bolters more than anything. Within the first few weeks, I found myself pinning top as a red hat and running a shuttle car when we were pulling pillars.
Boy was I into too. There were parts of me that absolutely loved it. When we went out shopping on my days off, I made sure I wore my company hat that said Deep Mine 26. I wanted people to know I was a coal miner and that I worked hard everyday, risking life and limb to provide for my family. I enjoyed it when people’s eyes nearly popped out of their heads when I’d answer their questions like, “How far down do you work?” or I’d tell them about pulling pillars.
Even though I was enjoying it, I still knew it wasn’t like it had been when my father and grandfathers were coal miners.
I grew up hearing about how close coal miners were. Coal mining for my father and grandfathers was like having a second family to go to each day. They took care of one another. They stood up for one another. It’s not like that now. My uncle, who was still working in the mine (and who tried to talk me out of going underground), gave me a warning. He told me, “You have to look out for #1.” At first I didn’t realize what he meant, but it didn’t take me long to figure it out. Today coal miners work together, and are pretty good friends to some extent, but there is no family like before.
All my preconceived ideas of what it would be like to mine coal had come from a time when the union was strong and the majority of coal miners still knew to put back money and how to weather layoffs and strikes. They were compelled to fight for the common good rather than putting themselves and their family’s wants before the next man. So much had changed. You had to look out for number #1, watch your own ass and make sure you looked good for the company or else find yourself among the first to receive a pink slip. I never had it in me to be selfish though. I could never rat someone out in the mine office or push blame on someone else as much as they deserved it. I knew they had a family to feed as well.
After working on a coal crew I was eventually accepted into the electrical training program where, after a year working as a repairman trainee on and off the hoot owl (3rd shift), I got my electrical papers (certification). It came at a price though. What little sense of camaraderie you found on a coal crew was non-existent in the ranks of mechanics. The competition and back stabbing was horrible, especially among the younger men.
The Fault Line
I was eventually put on #4 section where the company had been trying to mine their way through a fault line to get to another boundary of coal. It took over a year and a half, and at one point we didn’t belt up but once in 8 months. It was a sandstone roll that rose to 35 foot in a single break, and went left to right starting in #1 entry and peaking out in #6. After we broke the cutter arm on two continuous miners and had been replacing 500 carbide tipped bits a shift, welding bit blocks, and breaking miner chains on a daily basis, management finally decided to bring in air drills and two diesel compressors to drill and shoot our way through “bastard” sandstone. The top was loose, ranging from from 15 to 25 foot in height, held together with hundreds of glue bolts and meshing. They were to afraid to glue it I guess, fearing it would just make one solid chunk that would fall out and shut the section down completely. All the inspectors would say to the bosses was, “Your doing the best you can with it.” No one had the guts to stand between the company and millions of dollars worth of coal to say, “Someone will get killed, this isn’t working, it’s too dangerous.”
That one year on the fault line felt like it took years off my life, dodging draw rock, constantly repairing the old equipment which was never meant to cut that hard of sandstone, let alone operate on a steep slope (Ever see a 40 ton continuous miner pushing a roof bolter to the top of a face and the miner cut loose and slide backwards? Everyday?) I was never afraid to shut down a piece of equipment I felt was unsafe, and I never hesitated to take as much time as was necessary to do a proper inspection of the equipment, or make a proper repair. What’s worse is the company only gave us a skeleton crew, 4 to 5 men working us 10 hours a day 5 days a week rotating from day to evening shift each week. To beat it all, the boss was only 28 years old and trying to prove himself, which meant he’d lay the blade to the repairman (me) when he didn’t meet his goals.
Even when I knew I was being thrown under the bus, I’d never stand my ground, I’d still not go into the office and cut someones throat. I put my faith in hoping that someone would realize the lies other people were telling. I suppose in many ways, it was my own damn fault life was so rough in the mines. I look back often and think of how I should have stuck as many knives in the backs of my enemies as they had me, but that was not how I was raised. I did not want to become them.
We finally pushed through the fault and the conditions got better, but after a year on #4 section, I was moved back to hoot owl, moved from section to section, crew to crew. That’s how I’d spend the rest of my time working underground.
Some may ask, “What about the union?” Early on I had looked for help from the union, but the United Mine Workers had become as much of a business as the business I worked for. I called and invited organizers from the Castlewood office into my home. They came looking like insurance salesmen: brilliant white teeth, $40 hair styles, polo shirts and expensive looking leather shoes. I found out that everything my fathers and forefathers had fought for was gone, corrupted—benefiting the few at the top rather than the many below.
Eventually I heard that some non-profit organizations like Appalachian Voices were trying to help coal miners and their families by bringing communities back together to fight the coal companies for a decent life. I began talking to them and writing about my experiences in the mines, doing what I could to bring back a sense of dignity and respect to our people. But the rug would be jerked out from under me and my family one summer night in July.
Our lives were turned upside down when the old family home place caught fire. We lost everything, but we were fortunate that no one was hurt. In the weeks that followed my wife and I began to rethink life and even our future. A month later I left the mines and we started a new path.
We became more involved with the local non-profit grass roots organizations and learned more than we would have honestly liked too about what was going on in the area. It was as if we had the blinders taken off of us and we could see much much more: the economic injustice, the political injustice, the sickness, and the poor shape of the educational systems. Over the years we’d been so concerned with just trying to make ends meet, that we ignored the bigger issues.
The more we learned about the environmental and health impacts of coal mining, the more we realized Georges Fork was no longer a good place to raise children. Most of the mountains up and down the valley were gone and going. The mono-economy created by the industry had led to a socioeconomic system that tears communities apart. Drug abuse was (and still is) running rampant while schools were not receiving the funding they needed. Teachers struggled daily to make ends meet and were working with fewer and fewer resources. Healthcare back home is a travesty with the only hospital in the county having been reduced to a “pack and ship” facility to stabilize patients before putting them on med flight.
Cancer rates and other debilitating diseases are increasing back home, and while many argue the reasons I know what we let loose in the mines day after day, pulling gear case drain plugs and letting loose thousands of gallons of used gear oil on the mine floor each year. I knew what happened on strip mines when it came time to drain the oil on massive diesel equipment and a mechanic was pushed for time. I saw over a hundred gallons of used hydraulic oil flowing down our creek and into the river that flows into the Flanagan reservoir, our municipal water supply. I know what is in coal slurry and where the impoundments are that still leach out into our streams. I know where slurry is still pumped into the mines and where it gets into the water tables. I was reminded of why my family had been dependent upon the municipal water since 1999. The family spring we used for four generations had turned into acid mine drainage when A&G Coal cut the mountain down and filled the adjacent valley.
The more we opened our eyes the more we realized the problems our children were being left with. We knew they would eventually face the same economic challenges. We knew we were risking their health and our health to live there. I wanted to stay and fight but we knew we would only be harming our children to keep them on Georges Fork.
For our children’s sake we moved just outside of Eastern Kentucky where the difference in their lives has been like night and day. The schools are well funded and the teachers are eager to teach. And though we have lived on an income less than 1/5th of what we had while I was working in the mines, we have learned that there’s much more to being happy than what money can buy.
It’s been five years now, and it is difficult to describe how much our lives have changed. My wife and I found our way back to school, both of us graduating from Berea College with honors. We have traveled the nation as the Breaking Clean Tour, doing our best to show people what their demands for cheap energy have done and continues to do. We have spent time on Native American reservations in the Desert Southwest and the Northern plains. We have met hundreds of amazing people and seen the beauty of this land, and even more of the devastation.
Throughout our new lives and travels, I still yet remain homesick for the mountains and people I grew up with. I realize though, that I am homesick for what has been and what can never be again.The mountains and people have changed to the point that I can hardly recognize them. I have began to understand, even more so, how the coal industry has affected our lives and the means by which they exploit everyone in Appalachia. I have seen the way our once strong communities have been weakened, if not broken, by the ever increasing poverty and drug problems created by their mono-economics. I’ve seen how coal companies have pitted people against one another, breaking the unions that kept Appalachia’s familial bonds strong in the face of relentless industrialization. I am often filled with rage at the terrible injustices perpetuated by the industry’s pursuit of profit; pushing production beyond the safety of coal miners and the land; infiltrating government and funding political campaigns to stifle economic development; working diligently to keep people poor and desperate enough to work in coal mines.
Today, I continue writing this blog, hoping to help shed light on these and many other problems. We have even started our own business, Breaking Clean, LLC, to help organizations better their messaging and to give us a means to continue our outreach.We need to keep making connections, to keep finding common ground, and to realize that we are all in this together.