Growing Coal Industry Seeks New Workers

The dangers of coal mining were tragically illustrated in this week's Sago Mine explosion, in which 12 men were killed. Still, the profession is growing and the price of coal has doubled in the last three years. Young people have shown a renewed interest in the industry, but not as much as mining companies would like.

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Federal and state officials are investigating the case of this week's deadly accident at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. An explosion on Monday trapped 13 miners underground. The only survivor was 26-year-old Randall McCloy. He's in critical condition with a collapsed lung and dehydration. This disaster came at a time when the coal industry is growing. The price of coal has doubled in the last three years, and some young people are showing renewed interest in mining, though not as many as the mining companies would like. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Roger Owensby teaches an introduction to mining course at Bluefield State College in West Virginia. A one-time coal miner himself, Owensby says he tries to show students what they should expect from a mining job and he doesn't sugarcoat it.

Mr. ROGER OWENSBY (Bluefield State College): I just try to tell it like it is and let them decide for themselves. We take field trips to the coal mines, and I take them in and they see what it's like. And for some people, they love it. And some people, they hate it.

HORSLEY: Owensby says the number of students in the intro class has tripled in the last three years. But there are still more coal mining jobs than there are students to fill them. That's because the mining industry is glowing hot. Managing editor Charlotte Wright of the Platts trade journals says rising prices over the last three years are encouraging mining companies to go after coal, even in hard-to-reach places.

Ms. CHARLOTTE WRIGHT (Platts Trade Journals): The coal industry, publicly traded companies, are enjoying very large profits right now, and they're turning a lot of that money back into production. They're opening up coal reserves where it is more difficult to mine. So coal companies are doing well.

HORSLEY: Mining companies are digging fast to keep pace with demand, but Wright says they face shortages of everything from oversized earth-mover tires to skilled workers. Some parents in West Virginia, especially those in coal-mining areas, have discouraged their children from pursuing mining careers. That's partly because they worry about the boom-and-bust economics of the industry, but it also reflects fears for their children's health and safety. Jim Thompson of the Coal and Energy Price Report says even though mining is less physical than it once was, it remains a risky business.

Mr. JIM THOMPSON (Coal and Energy Price Report): It is still a tough job that can be dangerous, and it still takes courage. And anybody who uses electricity in the United States should appreciate the job that these men and women do.

HORSLEY: Even at today's high prices, coal remains a relative bargain compared to oil and natural gas. And the energy bill passed last summer encourages the use of more coal to keep the nation's lights on.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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