What It's Like in a Coal Mine

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Just before reporting to his shift Wednesday, coal miner Thomas Stern described his work and the conditions miners endure below ground to Alex Chadwick. Stern lives in Cameron, W. Va.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

There are more than 1,300 coal mines in the US, according to the Department of Energy, and no doubt the topic on the mind of everyone who works in them is what happened at the Sago mine. I spoke earlier with Thomas Stern(ph). He works at a coal mine in Cameron, West Virginia, about two hours north of Tallmansville.

Mr. THOMAS STERN (Coal Miner): It's been the talk of the mine pretty much all day long from while we was working and stuff, hoping they'd get out of there.

CHADWICK: Well, they didn't get out. One did; the others didn't. The way that this developed overnight seems especially baffling, and, I must say, especially cruel.

Mr. STERN: I kind of felt the same way, too. I'm on afternoon shift. I got home about 12:30 last night and had the TV on and, well, before we left the mine last night, they said 12 had made it out alive. Then when I get here, and get to watching the TV and stuff, they was kind of--changed their mind and I found out, you know, 12 didn't make it out of there. Yeah, that was heartbreaking.

CHADWICK: So you're on the afternoon shift. You're going back to work today.

Mr. STERN: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

CHADWICK: You say that so matter-of-factly.

Mr. STERN: It is. It is to me. I'm starting on 32 years and it's a very good job. And I love coal mining. It's just a good way to make a living around here.

CHADWICK: What does a starting coal miner make?

Mr. STERN: I'd say right around probably 19, $20 an hour.

CHADWICK: Nineteen, $20 an hour. That's pretty good pay.

Mr. STERN: Yeah. Yeah.

CHADWICK: And what are you up to by now? You've been there 30 years.

Mr. STERN: Oh, I--we're just--an unexperienced coal miner's just a little less. The average pay at our mine's probably 20, $21 an hour. It depends on if you work in the face or work out by like I do.

CHADWICK: Are you down a tunnel, down a shaft or are you outside of the mine?

Mr. STERN: No, I'm inside the mine. Our mine is set up where every bit of the coal that we extract underground is carried by a belt conveyor.

CHADWICK: You're working on that conveyor in some way?

Mr. STERN: Yeah, we have certain areas that we have to take care of each shift...

CHADWICK: Yeah.

Mr. STERN: ...to take care of the belt, make sure the belts are cleaned, rockdusted, things like that.

CHADWICK: Right. Wouldn't people be a little anxious about going back to work after something like this?

Mr. STERN: No, I've seen times where you get kind of a little nervous, and a little scared. I've seen a lot of falls and stuff, and you're trained. You know when it's gonna fall or whatever. For the most part, you do. And...

CHADWICK: You know when it's gonna fall?

Mr. STERN: Yeah, you can pretty much tell sometimes when it is gonna fall and stuff. It'll start dripping, like raining little pieces. That's showing it's taking weight and stuff.

CHADWICK: Oh.

Mr. STERN: But a lot of times it will fall without much warning. But that is not too big of a problem anymore with the type of boarding we do and roof support.

CHADWICK: Have you been caught in falls before?

Mr. STERN: Yeah, I've had to where--we had to walk around falls and stuff and things like that. I'm also a United Mine Worker health and safety committeeman. This part of the country here, especially, I can verify that we do have good inspectors and there's usually a union rep and a company rep along with this inspector. And we inspect the mine.

CHADWICK: How about when you go down into the mine today, when you see younger miners there, how are they gonna be?

Mr. STERN: They seem to be pretty comfortable. We kind of watch them a little bit. I work with one fellow that's I think the youngest--I think he's around 25 years old. And I--be honest with you, I never thought I would see someone that young in a mine before I got out, before I retire. But it's a dramatic turnaround in the last two or three years because of coal is getting so big in demand.

CHADWICK: And people need the jobs.

Mr. STERN: And people need jobs, and they're saying--well, it was just in the paper here the other day, that Consolidation Coal, who I work for, the average age at ...(unintelligible) is probably 50.

CHADWICK: Do you have kids?

Mr. STERN: I have one boy, growed.

CHADWICK: Is he a miner?

Mr. STERN: No. No. I talked to him. I kind of would have liked to see him go into mining with me. But he didn't want nothing to do with it because we do work a lot of overtime and stuff; we work six, seven days a week. And I'm kind of glad now that he didn't.

CHADWICK: Why?

Mr. STERN: Well, he's got two degrees. I put him through five and a half years of college. He can be a teacher, anything he wants to be right now. And that's--I'm glad he decided to find something else.

CHADWICK: Maybe especially glad today.

Mr. STERN: Yeah. Yeah. It makes you think. But I can honestly say since I started--and, today, these mines, totally different. They're a lot safer. They're very dangerous. But you got to respect methane. You got to respect roof. And you just got to watch.

CHADWICK: Thomas Stern, a coal miner in Cameron, West Virginia, who's going back down into the mines today. Thomas Stern, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. STERN: OK, thank you.

CHADWICK: Good luck today.

Mr. STERN: OK.

CHADWICK: And this note, listeners. Earlier today on "Morning Edition," NPR's Daniel Zwerdling recounted the safety record of the Sago mine. It is not good. You can find a link to that piece, plus more news on this story, at our Web site, npr.org.

Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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