Pennsylvania is the nation’s fifth largest coal producer. Counties in the western, central, and even eastern parts of the state are home to coal mines. But far less coal comes out of the ground than it used to. On this episode, we’ll head to southwestern Pennsylvania where coal mining is a strong part of the area’s identity, and find out what some miners there are grappling with. We’ll hear from our reporter Margaret J. Krauss about a mine rescue team, a retired coal miner worried about his future, and a former miner who had to find new work.
A member of the Mettiki Mine Rescue team prepared for one of the mine rescue competition’s timed events, the live burn: teams contain and then extinguish a fire in the hangar. They wear flame-resistant suits, fire-rated gloves, and breathing apparatuses. (Margaret J. Krauss/WESA)
No one had heard from the maintenance foreman or the mechanic since the power in the coal mine went out at 7:15 a.m. Brandon Mullins and his team, one of two mine rescue teams from the Bailey Mine complex, responded to the emergency.
Mullins stood at the entrance of the mine and brought the team up to speed with what he knew. “A fireboss...could hear someone yelling for help...thinks he saw smoke.”
In near pitch-black conditions, the team’s headlamps cut the dark as they loaded first aid gear into a cart. Mullins made sure they had what they needed.
“You got ARV [automatic rescue ventilator], everything? All your first aid stuff on you, right? You’re gonna be in smoke, I’d go ahead and get ready.”
Despite it being cooler in the mine than outside, everyone was sweating. Mullins headed for the command center so he could direct his team through the mine. He radioed through to the the team: “Sounds like we’re looking for two guys.”
The team confirmed: “Two guys,” and headed out.
Mullins was marking his team’s progress on a map when Don Krek stuck his head into the command center.
“Lunches are here, let your team know,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Mullins. He looked across the room to a clock showing his team’s time: 36 minutes.
The Bailey team was one of eleven teams in the midst of a mine rescue skills contest at the Mining Technology and Training Center (MTTC) in Ruff Creek, Pennsylvania, a community not far from the West Virginia border. Teams raced the clock in four kinds of timed events: first aid support skills, mine rescue, smoke exploration, and firefighting.
Coal mining is an inherently risky endeavor. Miners command big machines in close quarters surrounded by flammable material in both underground and surface mines. While mining disasters today are rare, they can still happen; and the people trained to respond to those emergencies are other coal miners.
Most coal mines, if they’re big enough, have mine rescue teams. They’re the volunteer firefighters of the coal mining industry. There’s no extra pay for being on a team, no bonus. Just hours of drills, and the knowledge that anything could go wrong at any time, and they’re the ones on call. At minimum, they train 96 hours a year. One way to get those hours in is to participate in contests.
Don Krek, 62, was one of the judges at the Ruff Creek competition. He was on a mine rescue team for 25 of the 38 years he spent working in the coal mines.
“Whole thing is with the mine rescue guys, and that’s what my wife doesn’t understand about me is, we’re going in a coal mine that everybody’s running out of,” said Krek.
But mine rescue guys aren’t heroes, he said; they’re just regular guys who have the training, and therefore the confidence to do what needs to be done.
“I guess you just will yourself to do things in life,” said Krek. “I was responsible for the guys behind me. I knew their wives, their families, their kids. I never let them down. Thankfully, I never had to.”
Krek walked me through the simulation mine, explaining how the first aid support skills and mine rescue exercises work. He and the other judges worked for months to design the emergencies, making sure the incidents stayed within the complex set of guidelines that govern the contests.
Because they weren’t going to pump smoke into the mine during the competition — though they can — pieces of laminated paper alerted teams to changing conditions they needed to watch and adjust for. Krek pointed them out. They said things like “ankle deep water” or “carbon monoxide” with the concentration printed below. As Krek walked, the crushed stone floor threw little puffs of dust into the beam of his light, visible against the black plywood walls.
“These guys don’t realize what they have here,” said Krek, looking around him. “I started in 1980. Our first real life practice was at a real coal mine. You had your contest training, but a contest training is nothing like real life. We learned the hard way.”
Don Krek was on a mine rescue team for 25 of the 38 years he spent working in the coal industry. Though he’s retired now, Krek, 62, jumped at the chance to continue training mine rescue teams. “It gives me the opportunity now to give back to the guys that haven’t been and, [hopefully] never will have to go into a real event.” (Margaret J. Krauss/WESA)
In January of 2006, Krek got a call: he and his team were needed in Sago, West Virginia, about four hours away. It wasn’t his first rescue call, by any stretch, but it’s the call he mentions when he talks about being ready at a moment’s notice.
“We got up where the explosion was at its fiercest and there was a lot of carnage up there. Lot of things misplaced, so to speak, with the force of an explosion.”
He didn’t say anything for a little while, then started walking again.
“I don’t talk about Sago. I can’t.”
Ultimately, 12 men died in the Sago Mine Disaster. The rescue teams were able to save only one person.
Krek hopes these guys never have to respond to a real emergency. But if they do, he wants them to be ready.
“When you’re in the real event, no matter if you’re physically exhausted, mentally, you have to be sharp,” he said.
Early in the morning, the Harvey Mine Rescue Team from Sycamore, Pennsylvania, had some time to kill before their first exercise. They stood on the edge of a field, talking quietly.
You have to treat the competitions like it’s the real deal, but you can’t simulate what it feels like, said Austin Ponceroff, 28. He’s part of the Harvey Mine Rescue Team.
“Adrenaline. That’s the x-factor, you know? Whenever you get that call at 2 o’clock in the morning and you’re laying in bed, and just like you drank 15 pots of coffee,” he said.
Ponceroff used to go to competitions with his dad, who’s still part of a mine rescue team.
“My mom flipped out whenever I wanted to do this. I said, ‘Well, look at it this way. If dad’s ever stuck in a mine, who do you want going after him?’ I said, ‘The same person I want coming after me,’ you know what I mean.”
While they waited for their first exercise, the Harvey Mine team watched another crew suit up for the live burn exercise.
The hangar, which housed the live burn, sits on the edge of some woods. At first, it was hard to tell the difference between the morning mist and smoke seeping out of the seams of the building. (One team had already fought the blaze inside).
The guys pulled on fire-rated gloves, and breathing apparatus, and a judge walked over to a control panel. There was a rush of sound, as though the pilot light of a huge gas stove had just ignited.
I looked back at Ponceroff and the rest of his team. One guy was explaining to a teammate why it was important that his suit cover his entire body. A few others were just watching the exercise unfold. Another couple guys were chatting about their kids’ baseball games, a double-header coming up.
They were leaning casually on a white propane tank feeding the fire inside the hangar. Roughly 150 feet away from a structure purposely being lit on fire, the guys were draped over a highly flammable object.
“Is that just a giant propane tank?” I asked.
“Yes it is,” one guy said. “If it blows up, we can’t save you on that.”
Ponceroff got his first mining job seven years ago. He needed the benefits, including insurance and a reliable schedule.
“I had two children and I had a third one on the way. You can’t make any money doing construction. I mean, you can. But not working nine months a year,” said Ponceroff. “So I pursued this career...I like what I do on a daily basis, and I really enjoy doing this [mine rescue].”
Back inside the simulation mine, Krek watched a team working through the rescue problem. They had just identified a trapped miner. The air was bad. The team had on their oxygen masks, yelling to one another to be heard. The sound of it made my heart race, as though something awful really had happened.
Krek leaned over and said to me: “What they have now, they have a guy to rescue.”
He was holding a map of the mine, and showed me the conditions the team was up against.
“You get blocked here, you gotta figure out how to get back out now to the elevator,” said Krek. But the thing is, where they’re gonna get docked, discounted right now, that patient that they got out over there? They’re gonna walk him right into low oxygen.”
In other words, that guy wouldn’t get enough oxygen, and he’d die. This is what Krek was talking about: he likes to throw curveballs at the end of a long day, to keep things as real as possible.
“I’ll do it every time, only cause I love them. That’s what I tell them. ‘Guys, [I] only do this cause I love you, man,’” he said. “I say, ‘When you leave here and you get called next day go to a real event, I want it to be easy for you.’”
He looked at the map, and back at the team. They were standing in a circle, discussing how best to proceed. Krek shook his head, disappointed.
“It’s up to them and they’re not sharp,” he said. “These guys aren’t sharp at all.”
A Changing Industry
Miners push an “empty” through a coal mine in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania circa 1907. (Stereograph image from the Library of Congress)
When coal mining was at its peak in Pennsylvania in 1918, the state produced more than 30 percent of the nation’s coal and employed 330,000 people. Throughout the 20th century, coal from Pennsylvania helped fuel two World Wars and build the nation’s bridges, highways, and skyscrapers.
In 1984, there were over 1,000 coal mines in Pennsylvania, employing nearly 27,000 people. But just a couple years later, the industry hit a record low, and never really recovered.
By 2015, fewer than 7,000 people worked in the state’s coal mines, producing just six percent of the nation’s coal.
When Dave VanSickle started coal mining in the 1970s, it was a different world.
VanSickle and his wife, Sandy, live in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh. I visited them one afternoon to talk about the forty years VanSickle spent in the coal industry.
The first thing that struck me about their house was how spotless it is. I learned later that VanSickle had always wanted a house to be proud of.
“It was rough growing up. It gave me life lessons, which made me say that I was going to do better,” said VanSickle. “I was going to have a home that I was proud to bring someone to, that my kids could bring people over any time they wanted to. Just give them a life I never had.”
VanSickle grew up about 12 miles from here in a community called Woodside. Every steel mill seemed to have its own mine, he said, and the whole area was coal patches, each with its own mine.
All the houses looked the same, four rooms and a basement. VanSickle said he had a pretty normal childhood. All the kids had a bike, a baseball glove, and dads in the mines.
“Growing up, back then where my dad worked, they didn’t have bathhouses. So when he came home he was black as coal,” he said. “He worked a lot of [the] afternoon shift throughout my childhood. He was there on the weekends. But through the week when I was in school, I never seen dad.”
When he graduated, VanSickle said he was offered scholarships to play baseball in Pennsylvania and Arizona. But he turned them down.
“Back then, your parents were different. I mean, once you turned of age, it was time to get out of the house, get a job, and move on with life’s work,” said VanSickle.
And in the early 1970s, a kid right out of high school could make a solid, middle-class wage.
“It was just so easy to get that job and go on and have money. And back then, you know—18, 19 years old—you’re thinking about girls and drinking and everything else,” he laughed. “So college kind of just got put out of the way.”
Dave VanSickle stands with his wife, Sandy at their home in Uniontown with their daughter, Tammy Kezmarksky. Their dogs, Maya and Ozzie, wait expectantly in the background. A third-generation miner, VanSickle worked for in coal for 40 years. The decline in the industry has threatened his pension. (Margaret J. Krauss/WESA)
For nearly his whole career, VanSickle worked at the Cumberland mine in Greene County. Today, it’s still a productive underground mine. He described coal mining as building a little city underground: there are roads, lights, rail lines that run between different neighborhoods. All of it driven by a sense of purpose and exploration.
“You step somewhere where no one has ever stepped before, when that coal’s extracted and you move ahead,” he said. “Nobody’s ever been there before. You are the first person to touch that area of the earth.”
It was a good living, said VanSickle. But he told his kids there would be no fourth-generation coal miners. He held up his hands. On each, he’s missing the first knuckle on one of his fingers, from two different accidents.
“It’s a dangerous job. It’s a hard job. It’s a dirty job. All my friends have basically the same ailments as me,” said VanSickle. “We have some type of black lung. We’re all on breathing machines at night from sleep apnea, which is brought on by the coal dust in your lungs.”
As we talked, VanSickle tempered anything he thought might sound like complaining by pointing out he made these decisions. He worked for the life he has. Yes, it took a toll on him; but he wanted to make a good living for his family, put his two kids through college, and he did. End of story.
What stings is what happened after he retired in 2014.
VanSickle is one of the 17,000 retired union miners, living in Pennsylvania, who rely on pension and health benefits guaranteed by the companies they once worked for.
Coal mining is a dangerous, physically demanding job. And traditionally, even when coal miners weren’t making a lot of money, they were guaranteed top-of-the-line health care. Later, pension benefits were added. In union mines like VanSickle’s, pensions and health care were frequent bargaining chips between companies and their employees.
VanSickle explained that companies would argue something like: “We can’t give you a matching 401K because you have guaranteed pension and health care.We can’t give you a dollar an hour raise. We can only give you 25 cents because you have guaranteed pensions and health care.”
Coal companies normally fund miners’ benefits. But as the industry declined, some companies filed for bankruptcy; and through court proceedings, many shed their obligations to pay into those funds. That’s left VanSickle’s union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), scrambling to cover its retirees. Congress recently acted to protect miners’ health care, but the future of their pensions is unclear.
VanSickle said he’s a worrier. Everything he’s worked for—the house, the peace and quiet, the time and money to spend on his grandchildren—is in jeopardy.
“My American dream was to work 40 years. To be promised a pension. To be promised health care. To be able to go on a vacation every year. To be able to take our grandchildren wherever we want to,” he said. “And now everything’s on hold. It’s just been taken away.”
If his and Sandy’s parents are any indication, VanSickle figures they have a few good years before they get sick. In the last year or so, he’s spent a lot of time on buses, traveling to Washington, DC with the United Mine Workers to lobby Congress to protect their benefits. He and his friends tell each other their fathers, many of whom were also miners, would be rolling in their graves if they knew what was happening.
“We don’t feel that we’re asking for anything that we don’t deserve and work for all our life,” VanSickle said. “I believe in promises. If I make you a promise, I’m going to keep it. They made us a promise and they reneged on it.”
Josh Beltowski mined coal until the industry hit a low in 2015. Rather than wait to be laid off, he left the mines and bought a logging business from a man ready to retire. As an independent contractor, Beltowski hauls logs for a number of different clients. Here, he helps clear land for a strip mine. (Margaret J. Krauss/WESA)
For many younger miners today, the expectations have changed. As demand for cheap natural gas has grown, the coal industry has contracted, making jobs harder and harder to find. When coal mining hit a low point nationwide in 2015, many workers were laid off and had to find other work.
That’s when I first met Josh Beltowski, in December 2015. He’d quit the mines a few weeks before and seemed pretty glum. He’d wanted to work underground since he was a kid and then, when he’d finally worked his way in, the market tanked. But when he started to talk about his plans to build a logging business with the truck he’d just bought, he seemed hopeful.
I got back in touch with him recently, and asked if I could ride along with him for a day.
Instead of meeting out in the woods or at the lumber mill, Beltowski said it would be easiest to pick me up. He told me to park at the abandoned restaurant across from the gas station in Burnside, about two hours east of Pittsburgh. That would give him enough room to turn around and get back on the road.
As Beltowski climbed down from the cab, he was grinning, ear to ear. A big logo on both doors read “Josh Beltowski Logging.”
Beltowski hauls logs for a bunch of different clients, going back and forth from the woods to the mill. He bought the business from an older guy who was ready to retire. I asked if he remembered the first time he drove the truck.
“It was a pretty cool feeling...knowing that it was mine,” he said. “This was my career... God willing, this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
Beltowski considers himself lucky to have the work. He’s a trained heavy-equipment mechanic who loves being outside in the woods, and doesn’t like sitting still.
“I like getting stuff done. I like the satisfaction of a finished product, a finished day,” he said. “I like setting my goal in the morning.”
That’s how he was in the mines, too.
“I liked coming out of there knowing that I loaded more than the shift before me, or loaded more than we did yesterday,” he said. “To compare ourselves to ourselves instead of somebody else... always bettering ourselves.”
These days, Beltowski usually gets up around 3:30 in the morning or so, and tries to get out of the house by 4:30. Sometimes if the weather is good, and there’s a lot of work, he’ll haul all night, get a few hours sleep, and go right back out again.
“I have too many hobbies to not have an income. Hunting, fishing, and golfing. I mean, it’s not cheap,” he laughed. “I don’t know what I’d do without a job. That’s my biggest worry.”
We came to the end of a paved road and Beltowski turned the truck right, into the woods and onto a rutted dirt path. The cab jolted back and forth. He was clearing land for a strip mine.
“It was a nice forest couple days ago, and now it’s getting destroyed. But those are jobs. And those are resources that we have the technology and ability to harvest, to use,” he said. “I don’t want to see them get cut down either, but I do because that’s what I do for a living.”
“I wish they grew faster, put it that way. I wish you could cut one down and have another one in two weeks. That’d be great for me,” he said. “But that’s not the way it works. You gotta do what you do.”
Beltowski spends most of his days alone, now; and he misses the camaraderie of mining.
“Number one thing I miss. I still have a little bit of it, but nothing of the caliber that I was used to,” he said. “It’s definitely something I would enjoy having back.”
His wife, Whit, said to me if her husband could clone himself, he’d do both: run the logging business and mine coal.
“I’d love to just take a day and go down and do it again, bolt another cut or mine another cut,” Beltowski said.
When he walked me out to my car that evening, Beltowski pointed out some land he and his wife own across the street. It’s thick with trees. He said someday he hopes to log the land with his own cutting crew, maybe get another truck.
After we said goodbye, Beltowski headed inside for dinner, though he wouldn’t stay long: the weather was good and there was money to be made. The plan was to haul logs off the strip mine all night.
He doesn’t like to sit still.