I remember the hurt in Bob Schultz's voice when he told me that his son had gone to work in the mines. Schultz, who has been a miner in southern West Virginia for 35 years, had a dream: His two sons would go to college, not into the mines. The older did become an auto mechanic. But the younger one graduated from airplane mechanics school only to come home and grab a high-paying miner's job underground.
The lure of the industry is hard to shake for coal-mining families in West Virginia, as Americans learned through round-the-clock news coverage of the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners in the state last week. Coal is also an addiction for the 52 percent of the country that relies on it for electricity generation.
Yet until last week, coal mining was out of sight, out of mind for most Americans. Rarely do we think about what fuel provides our power. The last major mine disaster of the past 15 years -- the deaths of 13 in Alabama in 2001 -- didn't receive nearly as much media attention as Sago, partly because it happened just after 9/11. Our relation to coal has been much like that to our clothes. We feel sad for the underpaid workers who toil in overseas sweatshops, but we buy the clothes anyway. Now many Americans are asking why people, not machines, still do the work of extracting coal. Weren't mine deaths eliminated with better safety laws? How is coal even mined?
I was as uninformed as most of the nation when I set off for West Virginia's coalfields nine years ago to write a magazine article about a kind of surface mining that takes off the tops of mountains. I drove Route 50 toward Morgantown, W. Va., on the state's northern border, thinking I would see mountaintop removal mining along the way. It took me a few days to figure out that those mines are in the southern part of the state, where three-quarters of the coal is mined.
Schultz is one of many coalfield residents who have helped me learn the good and bad of coal, a love-hate relationship that has marked West Virginia for more than a century. Coal has always been the state's economic underpinning. Nearly 13 percent of West Virginia's gross product comes from coal, while each mining job generates another 5 or 6 percent in related industries, such as heavy equipment. All 55 counties fund part of their budgets from a tax on coal production. Coal miners are tough, hard-working, religious and devoted to their families. Schultz has never missed an entire day of work, even with a piece of metal in his eye.
Yet life has never been easy in the coalfields. John Sayles's 1987 movie "Matewan" highlighted the bitter battle to unionize in the early 20th century. The end of those mine wars was fought in 1921 at Blair Mountain near where Schultz lives. Schultz's grandfather was among the thousands of miners who met defeat at the hands of federal troops, and never forgave the coal company for trying to chase him off his garden plot after he supported the union.
Company towns disappeared half a century ago, but life near mines can still be tough. I have met hundreds of people whose homes have been rocked by blasting on surface mines, who have choked on dust that floats down from mining operations, even lost their water wells when deep mines cut through underground aquifers. Large parts of communities, including more than half of historic Blair, have disappeared when a mountaintop mine has pushed in. Mountaintop removal has filled in more than 1,200 miles of small and medium-size streams in the hollows and changed the topography of 500 square miles of the tightly folded hills.
Mining today does rely much more on machines than miners. In 1924, 116,000 men mined 157 million tons of coal; about a third that number extracted nearly the same amount in 2004. Mining has also become considerably safer. Sago is the largest disaster in the state since the 1968 explosion in Farmington that killed 78 men and prompted creation of the federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, after which deaths dropped dramatically.
No one will know for a while whether the Sago disaster resulted from the more than 180 safety violations the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) found at the mine over the last year, or from a freak accident, such as a lightning strike. But it has spread concern through the coalfields.
When I spoke to Bob Schultz last week, he was worried. He'd been seeing safety violations at the surface mine where he works. Hurrying to keep on schedule one day, the shovel operator and greaser didn't get far enough out of the way when a blast went off and three rocks hit the structure they were in. "They could have come through there and killed them," Schultz said.
What concerns Donnie Samms, Charleston-based deputy director of Region II of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), is the perfect storm of working conditions right now. Coal is booming. Spurred by the skyrocketing prices of oil and natural gas and rising electricity use, prices have more than doubled from a low of about $18 a ton in 1999 to $40 to $50 a ton for power-plant coal, and even as much as $100 a ton for the metallurgical coal that goes to steel plants. West Virginia is traditionally the nation's second-largest coal producer -- about 160 million tons in 2005. Wyoming produces about 380 million tons a year. But West Virginia coal's high heat output and clean burn make it more valuable.
New companies, like the International Coal Group that bought the Sago Mine, are jumping into mining, reopening what had been marginal operations. Not that new companies are necessarily novices; ICG did hire some of the state's leading coal experts. Still, like the Sago Mine, most of the new mines are non-union, which means miners don't have the protection to speak out about safety concerns. Federal laws allow them to get out of the mine any time they think the mine is unsafe. But it is widely known that miners who protest can be blacklisted and won't be hired at another mine.