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DOWN IN THE HOLE: A Look At The People And Way Of Life Suffering Under Washington’s Plan For Coal

Today, Murray Energy operates 12 underground mines in Utah, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The company is America’s largest independent coal-mine operator, and produced some 64 million tons of underground coal in 2014– worth roughly $3.6 billion.

According to the Ohio Coal Association (OCA), the coal industry in the state employs 3,000 people. The OCA projects that for every individual in the coal-mining industry, a further 11 are employed in “spin-off jobs”– or as much as 33,000 Ohioans. When Obama was elected, coal-fired power plants generated over half of America’s electricity. Today that number has dropped to 37 percent.

“With Obama’s war on coal, miners in this community are losing their jobs,” Murray says. “When this happens, miners can’t move because if a lot of homes are up for sale at once, it is going to depress prices. My employees just want to work with honor and dignity.”

The nickname of the St. Clairsville High School football team, “Red Devils,” reflects the region’s coal heritage. “The name of the school mascot comes from the red clay that would be on the miners’ faces when they came out from the coal mines” says principal Walter Skaggs. The Provident neighbourhood of St. Clairsville was originally built as a “company town” for coal miners decades ago.

As Murray is addressing foreman that morning, Dan Powell, safety manager at Powhatan #6 Mine, begins his shift. As Powell takes a slow elevator down into the mine, he explains the appeal of mining: “Coal mining is one of the last blue-collar jobs where you can make $70,000-$80,000 in a year starting out. This is what America needs.”

Powell played football at St. Clairsville High School and later graduated from Wheeling Jesuit University. Powell considered a law career before settling on coal mining.

His great grandfather mined these same hills when mules and manual labor provided much of the muscle underground. Today, the heavy lifting is quite literally done by machines and an elaborate electric railway that stretches for miles underground. The coal industry is also a high-tech industry: miners carry methane detectors, GPS location devices, and small canteen sized tanks of compressed oxygen. All miners also carry special cellphones capable of communicating both underground and with the surface. Long gone are the days when a miner’s only safety device was a caged canary.

Robert Murray likes to say, “No pound of coal is worth a human life.” Murray himself was twice injured in coal mining accidents. Underground, Powell passes a rescue vehicle parked off to the side: “No other coal company in this area I know has a fire-fighting team underground like we have here at Murray Energy.”

The Long Wall

Yet perhaps the most high-tech piece of machinery is the longwall mining machine that cuts away at the coal seams a few feet at a time. With a length of 1,548 feet from head to tailgate, it lives up to its name. Longwall mining is seen as safer than other forms of mining due to the fact that its operators are protected by the hydraulic roof-supports over their heads. These machines, worth as much as $300 million, are produced in-house by Murray Energy in a special factory.

“This is a different critter than other forms of mining,” a miner explains as he carries jerry cans of hydraulic fluid to help the machine’s roof supports. When the engine is turned off for a moment, all is silent in the mine save for the unnerving noise of the coal cracking. “That’s the coal face curing as it feels the weight on top of it,” Powell says.

Powell is joined in his trip to this part of the mine by Mike Vitale, one of the mine’s supervisors. Vitale has worked in coal mining for 47 years and now has three sons in the mining industry as well. Vitale watches the longwall operations carefully; “We used to have glass works and steel works in this part of Ohio, now all we make is paperwork” he quips. “We don’t want Hillary’s welfare program. We want to work, make a living for our families, and pay taxes” Vitale declares.

Vitale seems satisfied and heads back to the railway car with Powell to check out a different area, where a three-man detail is improving the mine’s roof support. As the railway car creaks along, Vitale and Powell discuss deer hunting and fishing, which leads naturally to a discussion of the local environment. “You want to talk about the environment, that was a problem around here decades ago but things have improved now a great deal,” Vitale says. The area has seen the deer population bounce back, and Vitale adds that miners at another mine even once saw a puma on the mine’s property.

‘Obama’s Plan is Evil’

Sitting in his office a few miles away and a couple of hundred feet above ground, Murray is blunt in his views: “This Clean Power Plan is a ‘No Power Plan.’ It is destroying the coal industry and thousands of jobs for no environmental benefit. This is a political power grab of America’s power grid. Obama’s plan is evil, it will do more damage to our economy than a terrorist attack.”

Murray believes that the Clean Power Plan is about politics, not the environment. “This plan is going to lead to a $214 billion increase for consumers between 2022 and 2030 across the country. Ohio will be the worst hit state, with 31.2 percent increase in electricity prices.”

In the 2012 presidential election, Belmont County, in which St. Clairsville is located, voted for Gov. Mitt Romney. But as recently as the 2008 election, the county was voted Democrat. Hillary Clinton stopped by at St. Clairsville High School to give a speech during the 2008 Democratic Primary. But despite Clinton’s visit to the area, Murray says she offers no alternative for coal country.

Murray has launched six lawsuits in the past year to try and stop the implementation of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. “According to the EPA’s own estimates, this plan is going to reduce the global temperature by no more than 0.016 a degree, Fahrenheit,” he argues. “That is why 27 states have joined this old man in a lawsuit which argues that Obama did not take job losses into consideration when approving this plan.”

Under the 1971 Clean Air Act and its 1990 Amendment, job losses must be taken into consideration when considering new legislation.

Murray believes coal proves its worth during unexpected cold temperatures. “What needs to be understood is that you can’t completely remove coal from the power grid. Last year, Ohio had a ‘polar vortex’ with very cold temperatures: the wind was not blowing and the sun was not shining. Coal is a solid hydrocarbon and can be stored at a power generation site for use in such situations. I think it is, frankly, dangerous and insane to remove coal from the power grid.”

As Murray speaks to a reporter in his office downstairs, his son Ryan Murray is speaking to the same group of foreman Robert Murray addressed that morning. The younger Murray uses a power-point slide to demonstrate the work of a roof support detail: “See this section here has good foundation” he notes approvingly to mining foreman. Ryan represents the seventh generation of Murrays to cut coal– a lineage that traces all the way back to Scotland.

In St. Clairsville, the foundations of the economy may be changing. Undo’s, an Italian restaurant and sports bar popular with coal miners, sits atop a hill along Interstate 70. “We see a lot of coal miners up here. Maybe after spending all day in a coal mine you want to get as far above ground as possible,” general manager Dave Clark observes.

On a Tuesday night, the sports bar is quiet save for a local union’s Christmas party in the next room. “We have the occasional scuffle once in a while like any other place, but we love our mining patrons, they are well behaved,” Clark says. “We are seeing even more frackers now coming in, that is really taking off now. Even some of my guys in the kitchen are thinking of trying that. Coal miners at the bar these days hope things will get better for them.”

The coal miner patrons of Undo’s aren’t the only ones betting on coal. India and China both see coal as an important part of their energy future, and it will soon surpass oil as the world’s No. 1 source of energy worldwide, in what National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America call a “global renaissance of coal.” Even billionaire financier George Soros, once a critic of coal’s environmental impact, has recently invested $2 million into coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, though both companies face short-term difficulties.

Back in the mine, Mike Vitale watches three miners install bolts to support the mine’s roof. For new miners the installation of a single bolt can take 20 minutes– lost productivity in an industry under siege. Yet Vitale looks on approvingly as these miners put in a new bolt every five or six minutes. A roofing detail can go through 300 bolts in a single shift. “This is how the mining industry provides jobs; all that equipment,” Vitale says.

The third miner in the detail, Brian Humphrey, is the “scoop man.” The scoop man is there to support the rest of the detail and supply them with everything from glue to roof bolts. Humphrey, dressed in a navy blue “Rocky” T-shirt, is short, skinny and looks to be in his early ’50s. As he walks from the well-lit roofing section to retrieve more supplies, the silk-screened “Rocky” fades into the darkness, and the only sign he’s still there is the sound of his steel-toed work boots, trudging through the wet gravel.

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