There are wives in this Upper Ohio Valley whose husbands have delved deep underground for 30 or 40 years, and along with their spouses, so have their fathers, their sons, and even their daughters, too.
They’re in the mines.
The dangerous duties involved with digging coal have paid for college educations, family homes, vehicles, appliances, kid toys and adult toys, too, and for a taxpaying life here and not somewhere else. The vast majority of the rolling hills in the city of Wheeling and throughout this valley have holes in them, somewhere, and that’s because there are far more closed mines today that working ones.
Coal was found to hold heat by the earliest of settlers, and then mankind figured out it was combustible for industrial energy. Coal fueled much of the eastern seaboard’s industrial revolution and a movement that ultimately led to the development of the Mid West and West Coast states, and the seams in West Virginia were pilfered from the Mountain State by camp-building capitalists. The owners housed the men and the wives and children, paid them in company script to force the families to return the earnings to the company via goods and some services, and swiftly evicted mothers and kids if the worker perished in any way.
And it did not matter who was at fault. There were zero regulations, and although this form of black gold was mined for decades prior, the industry was the saving grace for many who were suffering during the country’s Great Depression. Mouths needed fed, malnutrition was all too common, and survival became paramount.
Coal mining was, and still is, a brutal job, and in the beginning most men walked down a hole they didn’t trust. He was nervous on his very first day, Ohio County Commissioner Orphy Klempa admitted, when he started a three-year coal-mining career for North American in the early 1970s.
“I know, during those three years, I was pretty deep under the surface of the Earth at times, but I can remember a time when we were mining right under Wegee Creek when I was a roof bolter. I knew we were pretty shallow,” Klempa recalled. “That’s because, when we would bore a hole to bolt the roof, we would get water coming through, and sometimes a lot of it.
“But, even though that was a little scary, I would not trade the three years I was in the mine. It was quite an experience, and it gave me an appreciation about the right way to go about coal mining and the wrong ways, too,” he continued. “I still have a lot of friends and family who still work underground, and because of those three years I have much respect for them and anyone who does the job.”
Coal mines are everywhere and have been for more than 150 years in the states of Ohio and West Virginia. In the city of Wheeling, for example, within most the rolling hills that separate neighborhoods like Woodsdale and Greggsville, Fulton and Forest Hills, the city’s downtown, and a portion of East Wheeling, have been partially hollowed.
Most of abandoned operations were established as community mines before running water by residents and businesses seeking warmth, but sealed shafts connected to large pillar mines do exist in the Friendly City and throughout the Upper Ohio Valley. The state of Ohio and the Federal Highways Administration, for example, constructed Interstate 470 from Richland Township in Belmont County to the Elm Grove area, and the roadway opened in 1983. But 13 years later, the Interstate collapsed near the base of the bypass near Bellaire because, the Ohio Department of Transportation reported then, the ceiling of an unknown abandoned coal mine failed because of stress.
The sinkhole impacted approximately 1,700 feet of the freeway, and the area was closed for a little more than three months.
Coal was king, though, and “Blood on the Mountain,” a documentary produced and released by Netflix last year, details the history of the fossil fuel in the Mountain State that started with an “economic system of exploitation.” The miners, however, fought back against low wages and dangerous working conditions and eventually the United Mine Workers of America began to thrive.
According to the documentary, the union once represented a half-million miners, but now its membership is down to 80,000, and the Washington Post reported in March that the industry had just under 70,000 jobs with 15,900 employed as actual extractors of coal.
“During my time in the mine in the early 1970s the demand for coal was still very high and not just here in the valley,” Klempa recalled. “I worked in a pillar mine for North American Coal, and I started out like everyone did. I started as a rock duster and worked my way up to being a roof bolter.
“When I started, you didn’t have to wear a colored hard hat that reflected your experience, but I did go to training school in Powhattan Point, and that’s where you literally learned how to be a coal miner above the surface,” he explained. “Coal was big around here for a long time, and it didn’t really decline around here until the industries started to struggle and eventually went away.”
Brent Worls planned to follow his father in the tourism business, and although he was employed in the industry for a few years, the career wasn’t what he expected, so he opted for another profession with one primary goal in mind.
Worls, a 1987 Wheeling Park High grad who earned an MBA from West Virginia University in 1999, wanted to remain close to home.
“I chose to mine coal because the opportunity was there, and I could work locally and make a lot of money,” he said. “At that time, too, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for someone with an MBA, and my goal has always been to stay as close to home as possible. I happen to like it here very much.
“I’ve lived in Pittsburgh and Columbus for periods of time, and I learned how much I appreciated it here in the Wheeling area. I had no interest in leaving here again,” Worls continued. “But because there weren’t a lot of opportunities, I had to choose something that would keep me close, and coal mining was it.”
He gained his first position with GMS Mine Repair in 2009, and then Worls was hired by Consol Energy the next year to work within the former Shoemaker Mine
“When I started in the mines, Consol was doing a lot of hiring for their mines because the demand was still there,” he explained. “They were taking on anyone who could pass the drug test because they had won a lot of contracts, and production was up by a lot.
“I got into it at the right time and made a lot of money doing it,” he said. “I enjoyed it very much, and before I had to have a couple of surgeries on both of my feet, I was getting ready to train for a foreman position. I thought I found something I could do for the rest of my working days, but that didn’t prove true.”
While Worls was recovering from a series of surgeries on his feet, Consol Coal sold five longwall mines to Murray Energy, including Shoemaker, one of the top-producing coal mines in the Mountain State. Once he returned to work, Worls said he discovered he had been transferred to an operation in western Pennsylvania. Upon reporting to work, he was informed his position had been eliminated.
“I enjoyed working with the other guys to accomplish our production goals. It was a great job, and I learned a lot. I didn’t know much about the machines they used for longwall mining, but I got to see that in operation a number of times,” Worls said. “I spent a lot of time near the longwall because of the positions I was in. I spent a good bit of time in the actual longwall section.
“It’s an incredible machine, and seeing it in action is an incredible thing to see,” he said. “Any photographs you may see of it is one thing, but there’s nothing like standing there watching it operate. It is an underground monster with a lot of parts. And those machines are expensive, but what they do is amazing.”
Technology has won the underground wars between man and machine, resulting in the elimination of thousands of jobs in the coal-mining industry. From 1945 to 1960, TIME Magazine reported last year, the nationwide coal-mining workforce shriveled from 400,000 to 150,000 miners.
Longwall and continuous mining machines, roof bolters, rock dusters, and scoops have reduced the underground crews, Worls reported, down to 80-90 men and women. Draglines, massive shovels, loaders, high wall mining machines, blast hole drills, dozers, and graders carry the load for surface mining, a process witnessed in Belmont County decades ago when the “Gem of Egypt” and the “Silver Spade” stripped coal and changed the landscape along Interstate 70 from Cadiz to Barnesville.
“I remember those giant shovels,” Klempa said. “You could tell how massive they were even when they were off in the distance, but when I started in the mine, we didn’t have the kind of automation that we have now, so those inventions really caused a decline in the amount of jobs that are available in the coal mines all over the country,” Klempa said. “Plus, the longwall equipment they have now is amazing but it also led to a decrease in the amount of jobs that are now needed underground.
“Can we bring all of those jobs back? I believe that would be very difficult because of innovation. But can we bring back coal? I think we can,” he said. “But for that to happen there have to be commitments by a lot of people who would make the investments associated with taking the environment into consideration and to employ the American worker.”
During his campaign, President Donald Trump pledged to West Virginians to accomplish what he could for job creation in coal mining, and a series of regulatory rollbacks have been orchestrated since he took office. The first three months of this year saw nearly 26 million tons of coal harvested, a pace that could result in as much as 90 million tons, but the long-term decline in severance tax collections has placed the state into financial hardship.
The Tunnel Ridge Mine in Ohio County was opened by Alliance Resource Partners a decade ago, and thanks to a long-term contract, Klempa confirmed, the facility is expected to continue operating for several years.
“I’m aware the coal industry here in West Virginia has realized an upswing in production and the number of jobs we have in the state right now, and I have had family down in the mines, and I still have relatives in local mines now, and a lot of my friends from high school are still working in the industry because that was still one of the options we had when we were graduating,” said W.Va. Del. Shawn Fluharty (D-3). “We have a lot of history with coal here in the state of West Virginia, and once the coal industry led West Virginia to a lot of growth. These days, though, there are a lot of layers with the coal industry that involve politics.
“But if we look at our short-term history we would all realize that in the last 10 years, the number of jobs has decreased by a large margin. We may still be mining the coal, but the same amount of jobs just aren’t there because crews have been cut back,” he continued. “That’s why I believe we need to ask ourselves where we will likely be with coal at the end of the next decade and get prepared to deal with a pretty tough answer.”
Bryan Coulson was raised by a man who worked in mining, his father was raised by a mining man, and yes, his grandfather was raised by a man in the mines. Coulson followed in 2008 and was underground until last December, when the Powhattan No. 6 operations was closed by owner Murray Energy.
“It’s not permanently sealed, so who knows what that means for the future? I know there’s still coal down there,” Coulson explained. “Who knows if it will be in the future, and who knows if it will be re-opened? No one seems to know the answer to that question.
“These days I’m doing a lot of job hunting and taking care of my mother because she’s experienced some medical issues,” the 1993 Union Local graduate said. “I’d love to get back into the mine at some point, and I do have some applications in at some other companies because I have a lot of experience with the belt-related stuff and the maintenance of a coal mine.”
Coulson, despite the series of three coal mine tragedies that claimed 43 lives in West Virginia from Jan. 2, 2006 in Upshur County to April 5, 2010, in Raleigh County, never considered a different line of work although a freak accident, a conveyor belt fire, and substandard mine safety caused those deaths.
“Down there you know everyone, and you come to trust them because not one of us wants to die down there,” the 45-year-old said. “I’ve told people that in the mines you can be as deep as 500 feet or as shallow as 100 feet these days. A lot of people have asked me if I’ve ever been scared about working underground, and I tell them that I would be more scared working on the highway than I am underground. The fact is that there are more people who get killed driving on the highway than there have been in the coal mines.
“I enjoyed coal mining, but like any other job, it had its good days and its bad days,” Coulson said. “I enjoyed the belt work I was doing because I’ve always worked with my hands, and I’d do it again if I have the chance.”
Coal to Gas?
It was in June 2012, when former Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) stood up before the United States Senate and told the state and the country that IT was over.
The senator’s words were immediately criticized, he did not run for re-election in 2014, and the expected political push-back has transpired since, and, yet, here we are today with a declining coal industry just as he predicted five years ago.
“There are people out there who will try to convince you that President Obama killed coal, but that’s simply not true. If the demand was there for the fossil fuel, regulations would not matter because the companies would have made the changes to continue using coal as their primary power source,” Klempa explained. “But our lawmakers, for a lot of years, have shipped all of that demand overseas and out of this country.
“Now, if our current president can bring some of that industry back to the United States, then maybe we will see the demand for American coal go back to where it used to be. It would be great if he would lead that charge by bringing some of the manufacturing factories he owns back to American soil, too,” he continued. “I lived it, and anyone around may age can share the same stories, but not a lot of people speak out about it. What has happened economically in this country for the past 40-plus years, though, was by design thanks to our federal government.”
In 2007, 110 million tons of West Virginia coal were mined, according to West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, but in 2016 that amount drastically decreased to 44 million tons. The decline of the country’s steel industry is partly to blame because the use of Metallurgical coal fell by 11.7 million tons to 8.3 million last year, but the biggest difference maker has been the energy industry.
“That’s why I doubt it ever gets back to the industry it once was, but I think coal mining will be around for a lot of years to come because there are a lot of uses for coal other than power generation,” Coulson said. “When I went into the industry, I knew it had always experienced its ups and downs because of my family history in the industry, but this time I don’t see it really picking up and getting back to normal. I wish I could say that.
“And when coal mining is done, jobs at all of the businesses that built the machines we used, and the other supplies, too, are down. It’s a trickle down,” he said. “But who knows? I hope I’m wrong. I’ll go back down tomorrow because I feel safe, and there’s a lot of money to make. When I started mining, I was pretty deep into debt, but coal mining allowed me to get out of debt and reverse my financial future. If it comes back, I’ll keep those belts working.”
In 2016, though, the majority of electricity generated took place at power plants burning natural gas and not coal, and more than 20 gas-powered power plants are up for approval, and a few are already under development in Pennsylvania. Nearly 20 more companies have registered for permits in Ohio.
Three locations in West Virginia have been targeted by similar developers, but court filings by the Ohio Valley Job Alliance have pushed the proposed project in Moundsville against deal-breaking deadlines.
A worldwide transition involving natural gas is occurring, though, especially here in the Upper Ohio Valley where one petrochemical “cracker” plant is under construction in nearby Beaver County, Pa., and another is expected in Belmont County. The projected promise of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations is very high, but natural gas is a commodity, too, and that means it is susceptible to the lows and the highs involved with market price.
Business owners from Steubenville to New Martinsville, in fact, experienced the lull over the past two years, and only now that the unit price for natural gas is high enough to allow profitable development has the white-truck traffic resumed.
“It’s a very good thing that we’re seeing an increase in the gas and oil activity because it creates jobs now for local residents, it provides more tax dollars for Ohio County with the hotel tax, and the economic impact is very real,” Klempa said. “Initially, it seemed as if most of the people working in all of those industries were from out of town, but that changed because more people from this area sought the necessary training, and they’ve been able to gain employment when those jobs were there.
“We’ve seen a lot of development here in the valley area for the past 10 years, but I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing all of it,” the county commissioner said. “If the cracker plant happens, the impact will be even bigger on both sides of the Ohio River.”
Diversifying the economy in West Virginia is what Fluharty believes is long overdue, and he sees the hemp and cannabis industries as opportunities to begin that process. Coal, the lawmaker said, has helped balance the state budget for several decades, but the time has arrived to create additional revenue while also retaining – instead of losing – residents to other areas of the country.
“We really need to stop looking at coal as our savior in West Virginia. I want as many coal jobs as we can get, and I respect the work the miners do, but it’s time we diversify our economy in this state. That’s been needed for several decades now,” Fluharty said. “The budget struggles we’ve experienced the past two years have had everything to do with an overdependence on coal severance taxes, and politics, too, because the coal industry uses our coal miners as their political football. That bothers me.
“We’ve had tragic disasters in our state involving coal miners, and we have lost far too many of them,” he said. “Following the Sago tragedy, we saw our lawmakers get tough on mine safety, but since I have been a member of the Legislature, I have witnessed attempts to lessen the protections. That is something I will never support because the dangers of a coal miner’s job are not secrets.”