Coal Mining Steeped in History

Trading Money for Safety?

Coal mining attracts workers because the pay is good -- around $50,000 a year, sometimes up to $80,000 a year with what a United Mine Workers spokesman called "reasonable overtime." It creates opportunity in small rural communities where there isn't a lot. And communities become extended families, with their histories focused on the mines.

"These gentlemen, their friendships were forged in the uniqueness of the profession, in the danger itself," said psychiatrist Dr. Bobby Miller.

Miners know that if you want to go home at the end of the day, you had to look out for each other.

But sometimes, said Jeff Goodell, the benefits -- good pay, brotherhood -- come at a price. "If you have one of these great jobs and you go in there and you start complaining about the roof being dangerous and, and there's too much water and, you know, you're afraid that something might happen, they'll fire you and you're out of it," Goodell said. "And so all these guys know it, and so they're forced with the situation of either, of going into a dangerous mine and making a paycheck to feed their family or raising their voice and getting fired."

Although employment in the industry is less than 15 percent of what it was at its peak in 1923, one thing these miners are not is out of date. Fifty-one percent of the country's electricity is generated from coal.

Profits in coal mining have risen steadily since 2000, and in 2004 were in the range of 15 percent to 20 percent. Nick Fantasia is mayor of one mining town that has benefited from that surge -- Fairmont, W.Va., a town that went through a recession when demand for coal dropped in the 1980s.

"I'm shocked, I really am," Fantasia said. "I never thought in my lifetime I would see news articles about shortages of coal mines and shortages of coal miners."

Congress passed the Mine Safety Act of 1969 in response to the deaths of 78 miners not far from Sago, in Marion County. This week's was the deadliest accident in West Virginia since then.

In the notes some miners left were assurances to their families that they were not suffering. What always seemed present during this week's tragedy in West Virginia was not only a sense of the everyday danger miners face, but also the miners' profound awareness of the families who spend their days above ground, in the light.

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