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Extracting Coal Can Have Profound Impact on Those Living Above Mines

Coal, which is cheap and abundant in the United States, accounts for half the electricity generated by American power plants. The world's richest seam is a 34,000-square-kilometer coal bed in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports that what goes on deep underground has a profound effect on the surface.

Sam Carrio spends most of his waking hours in the dark. He has been a coal miner for 23 years and currently manages the Cumberland mine in Pennsylvania. The deep mining operation extracts six million tons of coal a year. Sam Carrio's early morning commute begins with an elevator ride down 75 stories. Today he makes the trip with some visitors who have come to see how the mine operates.

The elevator doors opens and Sam Carrio ushers his guests onto a rail car. It snakes slowly through a network of dark tunnels and comes to a halt forty minutes later at a narrow passageway near the coalface.

"We are on the main lines, 54 north mains and the longwall butt sections are off to our right here," says Mr. Carrio.

No picks and shovels here. Just a single miner with a handheld control device he uses to maneuver a gigantic machine 240 meters wide and two meters tall. Massive blades cut into the coal seam much like a meat slicer… but each of these slices is a meter thick. Coal tumbles steadily off the wall like a calving glacier.

SAM CARRIO: You can see the coal coming down the pan line right now. This is called an armored face conveyor. It's coming off pretty quick.

SKIRBLE: In big chunks!

SAM CARRIO: Yeah it falls off in chunks. Sometimes the bits cut most of it, but sometimes because of the pressure it just knocks chunks off the face. It's just normal.

The longwall machine is tireless. It works all day, every day. At the end of one section it reverses direction and makes another cut deeper into the coal seam. It takes nine months to excavate a 26-kilometer horizontal rectangular panel. As the machine advances hydraulic roof supports behind the miner's path are removed and the earth subsides.

That's what happened one morning in late November 2000 under Roy and Diane Brendel's house, which quickly begin to sink into the ground. Mrs. Brendel says she was in bed and heard the house crack.

"Oh, yes, cracks," says Ms. Brendel. "And, I couldn't get the door open, and they would have to come and take the hinges off and smack it out and saw it off and put it back up. The next morning I would come down and I couldn't get it open again. And they did that 15 times."

The Brendels' dream house had become their worst nightmare. The floors warped, tiles splintered and cracks crawled across the ceilings. The staircase separated from the wall, the basement flooded and the garden became a swampy wetland.

DIANE BRENDEL: Worms, ants, mice, rats bats, spiders we have had [it all]. You would crunch on our floors.

RAY BRENDEL: This is how we live.

SKIRBLE: What about your neighbors? Are they still here?

RAY BRENDEL: They are gone, most of them. We lost six neighbors. We have 133 acres and most of our neighbors do too. So, to lose six neighbors is a lot of your close community.

SKIRBLE: What has kept you here?

RAY BRENDEL: We love the house. We poured our heart and soul into it. We feel that a man's house is his castle, and we feel that they have a right to their coal, but we have a right to our home.

They also have a right to a secure house. A Pennsylvania law requires mining companies to repair damages caused by their operations. The Brendells say the offer made by the company that mined under their property does not cover the cost of needed repairs.

Ray and Diane Brendel say they know that coal is the life-blood of power plants, but as they endure the fifth year of negotiations with the mining company, they hope for a legal settlement they can live with.