GALATIA, Ill. – After 17 years of fixing cars, Greg Rothchild found the money from carving coal out of the Earth’s innards simply too hard to pass up.
The married 43-year-old father of two breezed through the 40 hours of training the federal government requires of new below-ground miners, then quickly landed a $1,000-a-week gig at a mine earlier this year in this southern Illinois outpost. He was content the schooling was enough to get him safely started.
Others aren’t so sure.
The deaths of 12 men at West Virginia’s Sago mine last year and the recent cave-in that swallowed up six more in Utah have the notoriously perilous line of work under fresh scrutiny. And the adequacy of training for new recruits at the nation’s 600-plus underground coal mines is just one of the topics.
Tens of thousands of coal miners – by some estimates, as many as half the ranks – are expected to walk one last time out of the sooty, chilly caverns and into the light of retirement in the next several years. The push is on to fill the void.
All of this comes as coal surges in popularity as an alternative to pricey oil – lately about $80 a barrel – and natural gas. More than 120 coal-fired power plants are being built or are on the drawing board. Coal already produces more than half the nation’s energy, and by some federal estimates, U.S. electricity consumption could increase by 40 percent by 2025.
At least so far, finding miners hasn’t been a struggle, judging from the waiting lists at training sites. And the risks are an accepted part of the turf in coal country, where jobs often are hard to come by and the money is like gold, commonly $50,000 to $70,000 per year.
While there are plenty of youngbloods ready to replace the retirees, some wonder whether there’s enough prep work required of the rookies in a job where death constantly lurks.
“There are a couple of jobs, I guess, where somebody goes to work on any given day and you wonder if they’re going to come home or not – a fireman, a policeman, certainly military people in a combat zone. And coal miners,” said Clemmy Allen, chief of the United Mine Workers of America’s Pennsylvania-based Career Centers Inc., which trains new miners. “If you make a mistake down there, it’ll kill you.”
So far this year, mine fatalities number at least 25 across the country, with 16 of the deaths involving underground mines, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data show. Since 1900, the agency says, coal mines have killed more than 104,600.
Terry Burtis, safety chief of a Marion, Ill.-based program that groomed Rothchild for the work, offers the 40-hour training regimen. But Burtis considers that flawed because it covers too much ground in too little time, and he thinks it should be more hands-on.
“I just feel like it’d be better for everyone,” said Burtis, whose independent Workplace Development Institute includes a two-level smoke chamber where students can practice escaping a mine fire and other calamities.
States have the option of offering more stringent training standards: While Utah and Illinois call for new underground miners to get the 40 hours the feds require, West Virginia requires double that amount of training.
“We feel the miners are well-prepared here,” said Bill Raney, the West Virginia Coal Association’s president. “People, left to their own devices, still think there are probably some mines where there are mules pulling carts, and that simply is not true. Today’s coal miner has to have a level of technical capacity probably well beyond what other industrial workers need.”
Many training sites are going high-tech, increasingly turning to simulators in an effort to mimic real-world scenarios.
On 65 acres near Prosperity, Pa., a planned training center for Allen’s UMWA program will feature a 100,000-square-foot simulated coal mine. Gov. Ed Rendell has called the site, which includes $4.3 million in state funds, vital in addressing the industry’s expected run of retirements.
Allen’s program already has two “mine mazes” in Ruff Creek, Pa., and Beckley, W.Va., to give recruits a feel of work hundreds of feet below ground.
Allen has heard federal safety officials’ worries that the expected retirement boom could stoke the frequency of mining accidents and he won’t criticize the 40-hour training, even when pressed. He prefers to insist that his training sites’ 360-hour programs “are going to make good hard workers, but they’re gonna be safe workers.”
Allen says his classes are maxed out, with more than 200 having rolled through the nine-week training course and waiting lists of up to two months. Not bad, he says, but others say only time will tell whether there will be enough recruits to replace all the retirees.
“I don’t know that confident is the right word; I think hopeful is better,” the National Mining Association’s Luke Popovich said. “I wouldn’t say it’s panic. I think there’s enough concern that the industry realizes it cannot expect this next generation to suddenly materialize and come gift-wrapped.”
In Pennsylvania, Charles Waychoff has answered the call and become one of those “red hats,” the moniker given to apprentice miners for the color of helmets they’re forced to wear until they pass muster and advance to black ones.
During six years on a Navy sub, Waychoff underwent training three days a week, six hours at a time on how to handle fires, flooding or low oxygen – the very life-or-death issues that confront coal miners. Waychoff, 28, said there’s no way 40 hours of schooling can ready a new miner for such challenges.
“You don’t really get any hands-on or in-depth study,” said Waychoff, now splitting his time between making $22 an hour for Maryland-based Foundation Coal Holdings Inc. and the two-year mining engineering program the company is paying for him to take at Penn State.
Waychoff said he believes his nine weeks of training, along with the guidance of veteran coworkers, keeps him safe.
“If I die, it happens. It’s just the way it is,” he said. “You’re not going to stop it, whether it’s a car wreck or getting burned up in a mine. When it’s your time, I guess it’s your time.”
Raney, the West Virginia coal industry executive, and others consider the disagreement over the 40-hour training threshold overhyped after a couple of deadly years.
And when it comes to becoming a miner, nothing trumps actual real-world experience, the UMWA’s Phil Smith said.