Coal Mining Can Be Risky Ticket to the Middle Class

Richard Trumka vividly remembers breathlessly bounding up the back porch steps to tell his dad he had finally found his first real job. But his news was greeted by a stern warning that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

"He looked me square in the eyes and gave me this stare -- what the military calls the thousand-yard stare," recalled Trumka, who was 18 at the time. He is now 56 and a father himself. "He [my father] said: 'The day you lose one drop of blood or one drop of sweat in that coal mine, it will crawl into your soul and you will never be able to shake it.'"

The ominous message did not deter the young man from following in the footsteps of his father, both grandfathers, and countless uncles and cousins in their tiny corner of southwestern Pennsylvania. For generations, they had supported their wives and children working deep underground in treacherous conditions, harvesting coal.

'An Honorable Way to Make a Living'

Somehow, the loved ones lost in mining accidents and to pulmonary diseases, such as pneumoconiosis or "black lung," could not keep the young man from what he thought was his destiny.

"Some do it for the money. Some do it for the benefits. But some do it just because you heard your dad and uncles and your neighbors talking and talking about it," explained Trumka, who worked underground for seven-and-a-half years before becoming a union officer and advocate for miners' health and welfare. He served as national president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1982 to 1995.

His story is all too familiar to generations of families across Appalachia, including in Tallmansville, W.Va., where 12 men lost their lives this week when they were trapped underground after an explosion at the Sago Mine. It was the state's deadliest coal mining accident since 1968.

"There is an image that people work in the mines because they can't work anywhere else. It's just not true," said 59-year-old Cecil Roberts, a sixth-generation coal miner who now heads the UMWA. He said the proud tradition and the prospect of a decent wage motivated him to enter the family line of work as a young Vietnam veteran in 1971.

"I think people work in the mines because it is an honorable way to make a living for your family. You can have a middle-class lifestyle," said Roberts, who spent six years plumbing for coal in a mine owned by Carbon Fuel Coal Co. in Winifred, W.Va.

Today, America's more than 100,000 coal miners make an average of $50,000 per year, according to the Energy Information Administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But what coal mining offers in financial stability is often overshadowed by the risk of dire injury or death working so far below the Earth's surface amid noxious gases, toxic dust and heavy equipment. At least two of the miners killed in this week's tragedy reportedly forbade their sons from working in the mines.

Help Wanted in the Mines

And yet, coal mining has improved its safety record in the past four decades. The 1968 coal mine explosion in Marion County, W.Va., which killed 78 men, prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Since then, the rate of fatalities has dropped dramatically, according to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Twenty-eight coal miners died in 2004, a steep decline from the industry's deadliest year, 1907, when 3,242 employees were killed.

These days, the industry is on a hiring spree as old coal mines reopen to meet America's seemingly insatiable appetite for electricity.

"We're going to have that 'help-wanted sign' up for a decade," predicted Tom Hoffman, vice president of external affairs for Consol Energy.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., agrees, saying the United States is "on the edge of a boom in coal." More than half of the nation's power remains dependent on the fossil fuel.

But today there are fewer and fewer young workers who want to endure the dangers and dank working conditions of the mines. And the tragedy this week at the Sago Mine may further deter young people from entering the field, UMWA president Roberts said. And yet, he admitted, as a parent, he was incredibly relieved when his two children chose to pursue jobs faraway from the dark, damp underground passages he trekked through as a young man.

"We love our children. And because you love your children, you want to protect them and you worry about them," he said.

Like his own father, Trumka says despite his proud heritage, he too wants his son to find another way to earn a living.

"My son hopefully will break the chain. I hope he will not be the fourth generation," Trumka said.