Today, the nation focuses on Naoma, W.Va., a little town outside of Whitesville, facing the heart-breaking news that more than two dozen coal miners perished in a mine disaster Monday afternoon.
Our family lived a little over an hour away from Naoma for more than ten years; so my thoughts and prayers have been strong for those who are facing the devastating news about their loved ones. Much like Sampson County’s farming families, mining is a way of life in that part of West Virginia. It isn’t unusual for grandfathers, fathers and sons to work in the same mine, much less brothers, cousins, and life-long friends. Many of our friends have worked in the mines for years, and know no other trade.
Upon first arriving in West Virginia, we were mesmerized by the conveyor belts crossing highways, the coal trucks traveling everywhere, and coal trains creeping through the rock mountains. I can remember us turning quickly to catch a glimpse of a miner, covered in coal dust, headed into a local convenience store. We stopped along the side of the road to pick up a piece of coal that had fallen from a truck. We were so excited to experience this world we had never known.
It didn’t take long to learn of the pride instilled in miners as they strived to operate safely, and watch out for fellow miners. Visiting surface mining operations was amazing; and reclamation sites proved to show how the industry worked to give back to the communities.
One of the most exciting visits meant a trip underground at Massey Energy’s Tall Timber Mine, a division of Rawl Sales and Processing. After a day-long safety course, we were dressed in our gear of hard hats, emergency oxygen tanks, goggles, boots and reflective coveralls. We rode the man-trip (low riding cart that transports miners in and out of the mine) a little more than a mile underground. For once my short stature paid off. We walked in areas five to six feet in height, so I didn’t have the same challenges as some of the taller people in our small group.
Throughout the mine tour, we learned about coal production and the many skills needed to work as today’s coal miner. Roofers stabilize rock ceilings with steel beams (roof bolts) shot into the rock. Equipment operators have engineering degrees, many miners have electricians licenses and today’s supervisors almost always have a college education. Mines that employed thousands years ago, now produce tons of coal quickly with only a few people operating computerized equipment.
We watched as a continuous miner (large equipment that scoops coal quickly onto a conveyor belt traveling efficiently to coal cars) ‘shoveled’ more than four tons of coal in a matter of minutes. It is truly amazing.
I’ve watched the national media to catch a glimpse of people I know. Many of the faces representing MSHA (Mine Safety Health Administration) and other state and federal groups, are the same faces I’ve seen over the years. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship knows coal and he knows safety. I can’t confirm or deny safety situations in Massey mines, but there isn’t a coal miner – from the red hats to CEOs – that doesn’t respect the power of the mountains. Red hats are rookie miners who learn quickly the risks of working underground, with high-powered equipment, major voltage, and pockets of gas and streams of water. My Honorary Massey Coal Miner certificate was only given as a token for my day in the mines, but the experience brought a strong knowledge of the power underground as these workers strive to provide energy from right here at home.
West Virginians share a strong faith in God, and dedication to their families. Please keep them in your prayers as they work to keep the lights on for the rest of the nation.