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Coal: The Life Blood of West Virginia - 2002-07-10

In the eastern American state of West Virginia, the treasure that generations of miners have dug for isn't gold or silver, but the deep veins of black coal that lace the state's rugged mountains. Coal supplied the loyalist Union army during the American Civil War more than a century and a half ago.

Coal fueled the immigration of mine workers from Europe and now powers the furnaces of the state's chemical industry. But while West Virginia's coal industry accounts for 15 percent of the nation's total coal production, the state itself is one of the poorest in the country. Many West Virginians see coal as more than just an export, but a resource that has profoundly influenced the state's history and culture. Residents celebrate their unique heritage at the annual Coal Festival.

R.B. Foster, Jr., is tidying up the Coal Museum in Madison, West Virginia. After spending 41 years in the coal mines, he gets restless when he doesn't work. But he was pretty busy recently, getting the store-front turned museum at which he volunteers ready for the more than 25,000 visitors who showed up for the city's annual Coal Festival.

"Coal is West Virginia. It's our heritage. That's the reason we have this festival and this museum," Mr. Foster said.

All but two of West Virginia's 55 counties either had or have coal mines. Because miners believe the fossil fuel is vital to the state, educating the public is important, and therefore admission to the museum is free. Lining the shelves of the museum's main hall are everything from pay envelopes and old photographs, to battered hard hats and pick axes.

A videotape documentary on the history of coal plays at the back of the museum, but for a more personal story, visitors go to Mr. Foster, who grew up in a "coal camp."

"It was a mine community, a community built by the coal companies, houses, churches, everything was owned by the company stores, company theaters, recreation areas. Everything put in by the company in order to obtain coal miners from different areas," Mr. Foster said.

The catch was, miners were paid by the ton. If they didn't load a ton of coal, they didn't get paid. In addition, the companies paid their workers in scrip, a special company currency that could only be used in the camp stores. If workers needed cash for an emergency, they could trade the scrip for 25 cents on the dollar.

"They were mostly pawns of the company, because they had a job, they could earn a living, and that was about it. It was almost a no-no if a miner would go out of his community and spend a few dollars. The companies frowned on that very heavily. They didn't like that. They wanted us to come back over to their payroll," Mr. Foster said.

In addition to the poor pay, miners worked under dangerous conditions. They often stood for hours in cold, ankle-deep water, and breathed the coal dust that would afflict many with black lung disease. Unstable tunneling often led to cave-ins in which many men were buried alive.

Those harsh conditions changed with the passage in the 1930s of several federal laws, including the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Mine Safety Reclamation Acts. Both mandated better pay for miners and safer working conditions. But retired miner Shirley Inman said her job still wasn't easy. Mixed emotions well up in her as she studies one of the museum display cases. Mining allowed her to earn more than $70,000 a year, but the job took a terrible physical toll on her.

"I didn't realize then what it was going to do to me now. I have a lot of spinal deterioration, arthritis, lot of bouncing. It took its toll on me. It not only is hard on the women, it's hard on the men too," Ms. Inman said.

While the museum chronicles coal's past in West Virginia, a state-of-the-art mine machinery display on the street outside looks to coal's future.

Jim Clendenen, the exhibit's coordinator, said it's important to let people know where coal technology is headed. Instead of pick axes and mules, miners now use equipment that looks like futuristic spacecraft equipped with the latest computerized drills and motorized cargo cars.

The exhibit also includes an array of equipment devoted to mine safety. Mr. Clendenen points out a bright orange vehicle resembling a tractor with long, arm-like extensions. The high-tech machine can quickly create extra support in the tunnels by bolting new sheets of metal to the roofs.

"This is the only place I know of in the state of West Virginia, where a coal miner can bring his family and show 'em what he actually runs (operates) in the mines. The other benefit that we get is the older miners that are retired get to come here and see the updated equipment and it's really something they can't hardly imagine," Mr. Clendenen said. While experts predict that West Virginia's coal supply won't last another 20 years, Mr. Clendenen, a 23-year veteran of the mines, has doubts about that. He believes, as many miners do, that you need new equipment and a new generation of well-trained miners to dig a little deeper, and a little smarter, for that coal.

"There (is) a lot of coal in West Virginia. I think as far as reserves and everything still hangs in there high, so that means we do have enough coal we're taking lower coal seams, it's not easy to get to," he said.

With those lower coal seams, mine shafts will be more like crawl spaces, which means the next generation of miners will be working lying down.

As R.B. Foster steps outside his museum to examine the equipment display, the former miner comments that while no one knows what coal's future in West Virginia will be, one thing is certain. "When I started in the 30's coal mining, about all you had to be able to do was be strong enough to work. Today's coal miner has a very high tech job, very technical. It takes a lot of experience and know-how, a lot of studies, because it's so different," Mr. Foster said.

Mining veteran Jim Clendenen likes to remind people that coal mining isn't just about backwards or rural towns it's a changing industry that provides the world with a vital energy resource. "All these people that live right in town, they don't realize when the street lights come on and when they turn the lights on at home, some coal miner made this happen. They don't realize it's something that supports America and keeps us all going," Mr. Clendenen said.