[imgcontainer right] [img:coal_train.jpeg] The worst sound for a coal miner is when he can’t hear the trains running. As less of the nation’s electricity is generated from coal, there are fewer trains running and more layoffs in the Appalachian coalfields. [/imgcontainer]

I got this message on Facebook from my West Virginia cousin. She’s a coalminer’s wife:

“It’s getting tough out here. We got news of a possible shut down last night. I know God will take care of us. Where’s all the employment going to come from? Yeah we all know we need to phase out the problems with plants burning coal but not quite cold turkey.”

Evidently coalminers’ wives have a lot more faith in God than they do their Congressmen or the coal operators.

Coalminers are having a tough time right now — or should I say they are having a tough time as usual. When rumors circulate and announcements are made of a possible shut down or layoff, miners have no way of knowing beforehand if it’s a scare tactic by coal operators possibly to influence upcoming elections or there’s an authentic decline in the need for coal.  

Not only do coalminers work in one of the most dangerous occupations in this country, they are constantly used as pawns for politicians, big business and environmentalists. Honest, hard-working coalminers are in a no-win situation. And all they want is to survive, work and provide for their families, and live in the mountains they love.

Coalminers have nowhere to go when mines shut down or they lose their jobs except a longer drive to another coalmine. Instead of getting up at 4:30 a.m. and driving 80 miles one-way, the new job may require getting up at 4:00 a.m. They put on their equipment, board the mantrip and travel in the dark two or three miles underground and thank God for this opportunity. 

Coalminers have lots of sleepless nights over job security, and it’s especially worrisome now when God has so many miners to keep employed. 

When mines shut down or have layoffs, every aspect of life in small communities is hit hard. Church offering plates pile up with coins instead of dollars. A downward spiral begins. 

Even schools and churches have become dependent on coal company donations to keep them going. Schools are often recipients of funding for walking tracks or ballfields that public funding cannot supply. 

But while the coal operator is often seen as the “good, generous guy,” an elementary school in Nicholas County, West Virginia, operated without potable water for years even though it sat on a coal vein that made owners rich. Still, money could not be found to extend the public service water line to the school until two years ago —  and that happened with a grant through the state.

Coal mine shutdowns mean small communities have to depend on welfare to exist after the miners’ unemployment benefits are exhausted. Walmart cannot employ the entire coalfields’ population.  

[imgcontainer left] [img:Coal.jpeg] [source]AP[/source] Demand for coal is dropping, fast. [/imgcontainer]

More kids will need shoes and clothes from the clothing banks.  More teachers will need to spend their paychecks on Christmas gifts for their students so they do not go without. The big box stores may suffer layoffs because people cannot make those purchases for home improvements. 

We read in the paper what Tiffany Williams, a waitress in Cowen, said: “Everyone is going to move. They’ll leave. The place will be even more run-down than it already is.” 

People do not realize how ingrained this coal business is. Miners are miners. That’s what they know how to do, what they love to do. They live in the mountains where the rich coal is buried. Moving away for some is like a funeral procession.

Whether my cousin’s worries over layoffs at her husband’s mines are based in fact or fiction remains to be seen. Many prayers will be offered up to save miners’ jobs during and after church services. 

It’s a fact, however, that Alpha Natural Resources notified miners at mines in West Virginia and Kentucky in late June that they can expect layoffs.  Mines at Hatfield and Superior in Logan County will close, affecting approximately 100 jobs. Stirrat preparation plant will close, according to Ted Pile, VP of communications for Alpha. Reassignments will be offered to a little more than half of the miners.

At the same time, Arch Mineral and Consol also said they would be closing mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, laying off 750 miners. The newspaper in Hazard, Kentucky, reports that 1,500 mine jobs have been lost locally since December. 

When miners run scared, bad things happen. They accept a job too far away from home for safe driving. They agree to 12-hour shifts, working a dangerous job, exhausted. Operating dangerous mining equipment on a few hours’ sleep is an accident waiting to happen. 

Miners accept lower paying jobs and jobs that expose them to coal dust levels above the safe limit, resulting in black lung. Miners vie for positions, causing a breakdown in the brotherhood of miners. Miners feel they have few choices.

Somewhere in West Virginia a coalminer’s wife is talking to God, asking that her husband have the privilege of working in one of this country’s most dangerous, underpaid and least appreciated jobs —to mine the coal that keeps your lights on.

Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia writer and regular Daily Yonder contributor.

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