Accessibility links

US Coal Mining Jobs on the Rise - 2004-08-21

Americans are paying more for gasoline than they ever have, and energy analysts expect the price of a barrel of oil to remain high, especially since the OPEC nations are producing close to capacity. The price of American coal is also up sharply in some cases, almost double what it was last year at this time, due to demand for electricity in the United States and the need for coke for steel making overseas. But unlike oil, coal resources are abundant and accessible, and production levels are way up. And for the first time in years, both surface and underground mines are hiring new workers.

More than 600 people once worked at the Sentinel mine in north central West Virginia. Now it's less than a hundred. But there is a new handmade sign at the entrance of the mine, with drippy blue letters announcing that applications are being taken. And in a nearby building people are learning how to be miners so they can file those applications.

"Methane has an explosive range of what?" asks Tom Hall of the West Virginia University Mine Extension Service. "Five to fifteen percent."

He's explaining to the class of six men and one woman how to avoid an underground explosion.

"We become concerned with methane at one percent," he explains. "One and a half percent and we're looking at shutting basically everything down."

Before anyone can work in a West Virginia mine they must pass the certification test. That means taking a 40-hour surface or 80-hour underground apprentice miner class. In the class they learn about powerful machinery and sophisticated safety equipment. Tom Hall says safety is emphasized in all the classes, especially those on underground mining, because the mines are heavy industry sites under millions of tons of rock.

"We use multi-gas detectors to check for methane," he says. "We deal with taking care of the water in the mine. And safety is a priority in the mines."

Few seem frightened off by what they learn. So far West Virginia has issued a thousand more miner certificates this year than last year. The salary for a typical apprentice miner starts at $17 an hour, with excellent benefits including good health care. Ask twenty-year-old Seth Fletcher why he's in the class, and the cocky Navy veteran rubs his thumb against his fingertips.

"Money is most definitely the main draw," he notes. "Nothing pays this high with just a high school graduate, you know, education. Coal mining's hot right now, you know? So jobs are out there you just gotta look for 'em."

Jobs in the mines may be hot, but they're also dangerous, dirty and often profoundly uncomfortable. Some coal seams, called low coal, are at most a little more than a meter thick. A miner working low coal might never be able to stand up straight on the job. But Seth Fletcher brushes such concerns aside.

"Most of us aren't really city boys, so we're used to getting dirty anyways, so the dirty thing ain't no big deal," he adds. "Underneath the rock, I ain't never been under something like that. But it don't really matter to me. Money is money."

This is good news for Consol, the company that dominates the mines of northern West Virginia. In the next few years Consol plans to hire the equivalent of nearly half of its current work force of 6400 people. Vice-President Thomas Hoffman says it's not just to mine more coal, but because of the average age of the company's workers.

"The real driver behind what you're beginning to see, and I really think it is just the beginning, is just the fact that we're going to have a large number of people beginning to retire in the next three to eight years, and we think we could have a turn over of 3,000 people," he says.

For years a steady decline in mine employment has meant that when a position did open up, there was generally a laid-off worker ready to fill it. Now, many of those miners are retiring at a time when prices are sparking more production. That means openings for young people who don't mind the risks and the discomfort of the underground mines. For Coast to Coast, I'm Dan Heyman in Elkins, West Virginia.