Stunning photos show what it's really like to work deep underground in an American coal mine
- In the US, coal mining is a shrinking industry. In 1923, there were about 883,000 coal miners; today there are about 53,000.
- Working in coal mines is dangerous - miners have to deal with toxic gases, plus the threat of being crushed, drowned, or injured from fires and explosions.
- Some miners love it. It can be a family tradition, it's exciting, and the pay is usually pretty good. When a mine closes, miners would often rather work in another mine elsewhere than retrain.
- Curtis Burton, a 42-year-old coal miner, who spent 17 years working in mines, told Business Insider what the job is like.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Coal mining is dark, dirty, and dangerous work.It's not for everyone - it's for the few who love to descend into the bowels of the Earth to extract "black gold." Even as they face the risk of mines collapsing, or catching on fire, or the long term health threats like black lung.Advertisement
As Curtis Burton, who spent the last 17 years working in or for coal mines in Pennsylvania, told Business Insider, coal mining is a hard job, but it's also entirely unique. "Every day you're seeing a part of the earth nobody else is seeing ever," he said.
Coal currently fuels just under 40% of the world's electricity. It's the most polluting fossil fuel, but it's also cheap and relatively plentiful. In the US, natural gas and renewables are replacing it as the top energy sources, even as President Donald Trump has promised to bring coal mining back.Asia has the most coal mines operating today, with 1,200. The area is responsible for 75% of the world's consumption. Coal mines are also booming in Australia, which earns about $67 billion in annual exports from them.
Here's what life working in coal mines is really like.
Down in a coal mine, there's no such thing as a "nine to five."
Inside a mine there's no natural light. Although Burton said with all of the technology, it's no longer as dark as once it was. "But when you shut everything off it's as dark as dark gets," he said.Advertisement
When Burton started mining 17 years ago, miners brought their own clothes — typically blue jeans, a T-shirt, a belt to hold a torch and tools, and heavy boots.
Now miners wear clothing with reflective patches.Advertisement
Helmets protect the head, and torches light the way.
In Poland's largest mine, Pniowek, before work begins miners cross themselves in front of Saint Barbara, the patron of miners ...Advertisement
... and they never say good morning to their peers, because it's bad luck. Instead, they say, "God bless."
Burton (seen here) said in the US, it was mostly "old timers" who had their rituals. "Miners are a creature of habit," he said. If the left boot goes on first, that's the way it'll carry on going.Advertisement
Miners descend thousands of feet into the earth to get to the coal. Burton said getting underground was quick — it might take four minutes in an elevator.
But it can take two hours, along miles of rail tracks, for miners to get to the working section of the mine. They are paid for this time.Advertisement
Because mines go so deep, the air pressure can be enormous. And while ceilings can be bolted, it's not a foolproof technique. Burton said some mines have tried to cut costs by using cheaper roof bolts, but it's counter-productive, and unsafe.
There are also deadly gases in the mines, like carbon monoxide and methane. Miners no longer take canaries down to test air quality, though.Advertisement
To get methane out, miners pump fresh air into the mine. Unfortunately, methane is unpredictable and can billow through the mine unexpectedly.
Coal mining is, and has been, a changing industry. Technology, like rock crushers and shovel swings, have replaced workers for years. That's how employment managed to fall from 250,000 miners in 1979 to 53,000 in 2010, while coal production still increased.Advertisement
Despite the technological advances, it's still exhausting work. Burton said quite a few tasks are repetitive and physical, like hanging power cables, and manually stacking crib blocks (which provide support in the mines).
At the end of a long shift, miners need to rest.Advertisement
But they're strong. After the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in 2007, to find miners to interview, NPR journalist Scott Carrier said he looked for men with arms the width of his legs.
Piotr Grabon, a safety engineer who works with miners in Poland, said miners are typically "tough guys." In a lot of ways, they're disciplined like the military, and well aware that mistakes can be deadly.Advertisement
Food is essential. In West Virginia, the unofficial mining food is pepperoni rolls. They're thought to have been one of the main items miners took down in the early days of mining, since cured meats last longer.
A big draw for miners is the high pay. As Debbie Baker, who lived in Letcher County, Kentucky, told The New York Times, you could always tell if someone was a miner in her town, because they had money.Advertisement
The danger of the job also makes it a matter of pride. It creates a camaraderie between those risking their lives.
It can be a family affair, too, with several generations working in the same mine. These two men worked a mine in northern Colorado, with two other brothers and their uncle.Advertisement
For a lot of mining areas, coal has become a symbol. In West Virginia, the state's official rock is coal, and rivers, roads, and sports stadiums are all named after it.
And toiling coal miners are seen a symbol of traditional American masculinity, a lot like cowboys.Advertisement
Today, surface mining produces more coal in the US than underground mining. About 430 surface mines produce about 500 million short tons of coal per year, while around 230 underground mines produce about 270 million short tons.
In the US, one mining technique is known as "room and pillar mining," where corridors are cut out in a grid pattern. In a mine in Huntington, for example, corridors were cut eight feet high and 15 feet wide, running for 1,000 feet. After 70 these parallel corridors were cut 100 feet apart, the same was done across, creating an underground network of streets.Advertisement
What comes next is called retreating, which is when miners carve the valuable coal out of the remaining walls, and allow ceilings to collapse. The technique can be dangerous, and is known as "greeding it out."
The other main form of underground mining in the US is "longwall," where coal is cut from seams that are often a mile long and hundreds of feet thick. As Burton put it, "it's like a giant meat slicer. It just goes back and forth along the block of coal, like a big old thing of baloney, and you're just cutting it."Advertisement
Coal mining is still dangerous. In 2010, West Virginia had the worst coal mining disaster in the US in 40 years, when an explosion killed 29 people.
Working for years in mines can cause other health issues, like black lung.Advertisement
Burton, who has a brother who's still working in mines, said black lung was a big problem.
Despite the health problems stemming from coal dust, at least one retired miner, named Joe Wimmer, actually missed it. He said he craved it the way smokers crave nicotine.Advertisement
But more retirements might be coming. Between 2011 and 2016, the total value of the four biggest coal companies in the US fell from $33 billion to $150 million. Following the trend, Blackjewel mining, one of the largest coal companies in the US, filed for bankruptcy in July, leading to 1,700 potential job losses.
It's in part due to coal being the most polluting fossil fuel. Alternatives, like wind and solar power, have become more feasible, and funding has been diverted. There's also a strong environmental movement that's against coal mining.Advertisement
Coal mining is still a big earner for Australia. There, coal mines brought in about about $67 billion in annual exports in 2018. But there's the potential for losses if China starts to use more of its own coal, or less coal in general.
In China, 4.3 million people are employed in coal mines, and the country uses 50% of the world's coal. It's also invested heavily in solar and wind power.Advertisement
As of 2010, China was the most unsafe place for coal mining. It produced 40% of the world's coal, but had 80% of all coal mining deaths. It's since brought in more safety procedures to keep its workers safe.
In India, which is the third biggest coal producer, there are private, unregulated mines, which show quite a different scenario from American mines.Advertisement
In the US, when coal mines close, there's no easy answer about what to do afterwards. Some miners retrain. Burton, who now works as a surface electrician, said if his coal mine closed down he would retrain, because he had transferable electrical skills, which would help him continue his career.
But whatever comes after working in a coal mine, be it retraining or retirement, it likely won't compare to working thousands of feet below the earth.Advertisement
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