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Gary Bentley would like to shine a little light on underground coal mining.
The Eastern Kentucky native worked underground from 2001 to 2013. He’s now in a different line of work in Central Kentucky.
Bentley says most media portrayals of mining get it wrong – or, at best, they get it only partially right. So he started writing about his own experiences in the mines. The Daily Yonder is publishing his writing in a column called “In the Black.”
Bentley said he would like readers to learn more about miners and get beyond the two mining stereotypes he sees most often.
First, there’s the “Evil King Coal” story. In this frame, coal strips “the land and people of everything they love,” leaving only destruction and poverty in its wake, Bentley says.
Then there’s the romantic view of the miner – most easily conjured while looking at Depression era black-and-white photos of men posing with pick and shovel in hand. “These men and women are straight-laced, hard-working, God-fearing Appalachian people who work so hard for so little,” Bentley says.
Each of these stories has an element of truth in it, he says. And each has it wrong.
Coal does exact an environmental cost, Bentley says. But it also provided a living for people, many of whom were glad to exchange labor for money and a more stable economic future.
And the romantic notion of the poor but noble miner risking his life for little in return ignores the fact that mining pays pretty well – or at least historically it has.
You can find statistics on the “average” coal miner (mid-40s, high school graduate, male, 16 years’ experience, according to one report). But miners themselves are hard to categorize, Bentley says.
“There would be a large mix of people. There were drug addicts, preachers, atheists, young liberals. All lived very different lifestyles.”
And all shared the experience of doing hard, dangerous work miles underground.