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A Dark Addiction
The impact of the new policies was immediate. "I can't find nobody to work," said Noah Vandyke, 60, a lifelong miner who runs Pioneer Coal. "The younger generation, you can't hardly find one that will pass a drug test."
Since the new testing policy went into effect in July, Vandyke has lost eight crew members who were fired because of drugs or quit, possibly to avoid having their miner's license revoked for a "dirty" urine sample.
"Every family in the area has been affected by drug abuse," Vandyke said, "and it ain't just coal miners." In recent years, two of his sisters have died because of drugs, and two brothers, both injured miners, are deep in the grip of addiction.
Unlike some operators, Vandyke is known as a boss who will not turn a man away for trying to get help at the methadone clinic. One of those is his on-again, off-again "scoop man," Jeff Vandyke, who shuttles coal inside the mine in a huge, spoon-shaped electric cart. The two men are not directly related -- Vandyke is a common name in the area -- but their lives have been intertwined since the elder miner gave the younger his first job underground 15 years ago.
Like Noah, Jeff Vandyke, 34, grew up in Buchanan County near the town of Grundy. With his horizons blocked by the mountainsides, he found a new world underground. "There's nothing like coal mining," he said. "You know that nobody else will ever go where you're going. Just the people in that mine, that day."
The mines led Jeff Vandyke to another love: drugs. He got his first prescription for OxyContin after a rock fall accident that left him with broken ribs, shoulder damage and spinal injuries. Disabled and addicted, he thought he could get away from drugs by leaving, so he moved with his brother to Arizona and got a job as a trucker. Soon they were buying pills along the Mexican border, 1,000 at a time, he said. Methamphetamine kept them awake, and OxyContin kept them high.
By 2003, Jeff Vandyke was back home and drifting deeper into addiction. He lived for more than a year in a broken-down trailer with the electricity, water and heat cut off. He spent most of his days on a couch in the dark, stirring every few hours to warm the air under his blankets with a propane camping stove.
The crippling pain and nausea of withdrawal pushed him to get help. He drives to a Kentucky clinic for a two-week supply of liquid methadone and says he has been clean for three years. He and his girlfriend, Daisy Ratliff, live with her two sons in a trailer with a thick coal seam visible on the hillside in their back yard. She has brightened the black lockbox where Vandyke stores his methadone with stickers of hearts, stars and red letters that spell "I LV U."
"My truck's paid off," Vandyke says, his long, blond hair tucked under a camouflage cap. "I've got four bows, three shotguns." He takes time off from the mines in the fall to hunt deer, grouse and squirrel for winter meat.
And yet, some of the damage from his drug years can't be undone. Vandyke's father no longer speaks to him, and he and his brother haven't said a word to each other in nearly two years, ever since he said his brother shot at him with a .38 and tried to steal Ratliff's car.
Salves for Pain and Fear
"I'll probably never get off methadone because of the shape I'm in," said Mick Wampler, a disabled coal miner who lives in a small room at the end of a narrow hallway in his sister's house.
Wampler, 47, started working in the mines four days after his 18th birthday. His mother needed the money after floods wiped out the family's home in Haysi, Va. But he never had the nerves for it, he said, and the sight of accidents sent him over the edge. He watched one friend lose an arm to a rock hauler and saw another electrocuted by a 900-volt mining cable. Wampler began taking Valium just to go underground.