The People of the Coal
I am a fourth generation coal miner—or rather, I was. I worked as an underground miner in Southeastern Kentucky until June of 2012, when Arch Coal decided to shut down the facility where I was employed because it was no longer profitable. I was then forced to chase the industry for new work. This hunt sent me to New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, before I landed in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. During the search for another mining job I was asked many questions:
- Why are you leaving your home?
- The industry is in decline; shouldn’t you think bigger?
- How can you abandon your family just for the sake of a job?
To answer those questions you have to understand both the region and the oppressing power the coal industry has held on the people and communities of the coal fields.
The industry encouraged the people of the coal fields to abandon the self-reliant practices of agriculture and sustaining themselves by living off the land. It encouraged people to give up their land and their lives with the promise of a more modern and comfortable living. This became a powerful and self-sustaining grip on the communities where King Coal reigned supreme. My own family is an example of this.
My paternal grandfather’s coal mining career was ended in the late 1950’s when he was diagnosed with black lung and lost one of his lungs to the disease. He continued to work in the auto service industry in an attempt to make ends meet financially for his family. His life was taken from him by black lung disease in 1966; my father was only five years old.
My father and one of his six brothers chose to stay in Southeastern Kentucky and found themselves working in the coal industry, while the other brothers moved to Detroit to work in the automotive manufacturing industry. My father’s family never received any compensation from the company or the coal industry which was responsible for my grandfather’s death.
In 1962, my maternal grandfather’s coal mining career was ended when he lost his left arm in a shuttle car accident underground. He received a $6,000 compensation payment and a metal claw that would attach near his elbow. He was forced to work part-time jobs at a wage much lower than that found in the mining industry. My mother’s family lived in poverty and my grandfather became an alcoholic. Even so, my mother watched both of her brothers join the ranks of underground miners.
My father has worked as a surface miner for over 35 years, through boom and bust. I never missed a meal or went to school without clothes on my back, but there were many times as a child that, if not for government assistance, I would not have been fed or had access to health care.
I grew up never knowing my father’s father because of the mining industry, and I watched my mother’s father struggle with his disability and the heartbreak of not being able to provide for his family. I grew up seeing alcohol and drug abuse tear through the mountains and valleys of my hometown, in part due to the destructive effects the coal industry has on a person’s body and mind. Yet, despite the history of my family and the hard times that were brought upon us by the coal industry, I still chose a career as an underground miner.
The coal industry had a strong hold on the region for over one hundred years, and now that the industry has pulled out, taking all of the profit back to St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and even China, the people of the coal fields are free from the cold hands of Old King Coal. Unfortunately, due to the faulty planning and lack of concern by federal, state, and local politicians, the people of these communities are left with nothing but empty mine shafts, abandoned surface mines, and no economic opportunities.Coal ppl: left w/ nothing but empty mine shafts, abandoned surface mines, and no opportunities. Click To Tweet
All these coal communities are consistently promised better opportunities with each and every election cycle, and are always let down. They vote in confidence and hope that one day the lies will become truth and provide them with the opportunities they deserve.
People who have not lived in the coal fields make the claim that the people of these communities are ignorant, blind, and do not have the ability to make clear, sound decisions. Yes, there are some people who choose to turn a blind eye to the truth, but the majority of the people in these communities see the reality very clearly. As a former underground miner who lived in Southeastern Kentucky for 29 years, I understand those people. I do not agree with the misdirected anger, hate, and mud slinging that happens when coal reaches the political platform, but I do wholeheartedly understand the fear of not knowing what will happen come tomorrow when you are in a corner with no escape.
The people of these communities are lied to by propaganda machines like Friends of Coal and the Kentucky Coal Association, lobbying groups funded by the coal corporations and by investors who do not live in these communities or have to suffer the devastating effects when the industry is in a bust period. These organizations spread fear, lies, and more false hope to persuade the communities to vote in their favor. As a result, you have community members who have relied on a single industrial non-renewable resource for over 100 years. They are given empty promises to benefit those in the corporate offices and political leadership roles. The lobbyists are able to win at this game because there is no one speaking in opposition, speaking the truth with the monetary and political power that these groups have supporting them.
What do the people of the coal communities want? They want what they rightfully deserve and have been kept from for so many years: economic freedom, transparency, and the ability to not only earn a living wage but to know that the profits earned are going back into their community, rather than into pockets thousands of miles away.
It’s very simple: The people of the coal communities do not want sympathy. They don’t want a handout. They want action.It’s very simple: The people of the coal do not want sympathy. They don’t want a handout. They want action. Click To Tweet
About the Author
Gary Bentley was born and raised in the small Appalachian coal field community of Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he lived for twenty-nine years. Gary is a former underground coal miner of twelve years. In 2012, Gary was forced to leave his hometown in search for a new career as the coal market declined and jobs began to leave the region. He is currently working in manufacturing and residing in Lexington, Kentucky. Gary is sharing his stories of being a coal miner to educate the public on the realities of contemporary coal mining and Appalachia.