W.Va. miners still pay labor's toll of blood, sweat

September 01, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

LOGAN COUNTY, W.VA. — LOGAN COUNTY, W.Va.-- In the dark of the pit, his helmet lamp spears the black and catches the sparkle of swirling rock dust in the air. Sooner or later, Danny Kegley figures, that dust may kill him.

The mine timbers beside him could bring death much faster. They snap and crackle with the weight of millions of tons of rock.

Either way, it's a gruesome end. Mr. Kegley shrugs. Some unseen tug takes him back down into the coal mines every day.

"I don't know what it is. It's in the blood, I guess," he said. "Once you're a coal miner, you always want to be one."

This Labor Day celebrates the toils of a society whose work has greatly changed. It is more mechanized, less physical, more white-collar.

But there are some whose jobs still demand payment in sweat and levy a tax of lives. Here among the coal mines of West Virginia, the creases of the land harbor the tradition of that hard, dangerous labor.

*

At 2:50 p.m. each day, Danny Kegley lies sideways on a cart, spooned in among nine other men for his commute to work. The flat vehicle growls into a slit in the earth and disappears.

The air is immediately cool. The underbelly of the mountain slides past just inches above the helmets of the reclining men. It takes 45 minutes for the "mancart" to grind and bump 1 1/2 miles into the heart of the mountain.

This is his workplace. It is about 33 inches high and 20 feet wide. The floor is a black mud of coal dust. The ceiling is rock and always suspect. It may drop at any time: in small, annoying pieces; in big chunks that cripple; in whole sections that bury in a shuddering, lethal thump.

Fourteen men have died in West Virginia mines so far this year. Another was buried in a cave-in last week.

For nine hours, Mr. Kegley and his companions will be in this mine, unable to stand. They will work on their backs or crawling on their hands and knees. They will eat their lunch sitting. If the earth has sweated water onto the the mine floor, they will work in that all day.

"The first time I went in the mine, it was real weird," said Mr. Kegley. He is 41, a soft-spoken man with a deceptively round body and hair that curls on his neck.

"I always thought I couldn't stand all that mountain over my head," he recalled. "Afraid it would fall in on me."

His brother, like his father a mine foreman, convinced him to try the work. "I've been in it ever since."

Mr. Kegley is a roof-bolter. He sets up timbers as the coal is removed. The mine is actually a low-ceilinged grid of corridors and pillars of coal. His crew today is mining the pillars, stealing away the coal supporting the roof and backing out of each section before it collapses.

The timbers Mr. Kegley pounds into place will not hold up the mountain for long. But the wood delays the collapse, and the groan of the beams gives the men warning when it is near.

All day, as he works, Mr. Kegley listens to the pops of the wood as it sighs under the weight of the rock above. All the miners listen, even as the heavy equipment they operate rumbles like rolling thunder. They learn to read the sounds: that crack of timber is safely many rows back, this tinkle of rock is harmless shale-fall.

Every once in a while, a peculiar thump will make all the men start. Their headlamps dance together down the darkened shaft to check for a bowed ceiling or fractured timbers.

"You can tell from the sound what the top's doing," Mr. Kegley said. "You know it's time to get out." He has never been seriously hurt in 15 years in the mines.

"I enjoy pinning the tops," he said. "You've got everybody's life in

your hands."

*

They call the adjoining county "Bloody Mingo," for all the gunplay that has serenaded the mines. The Hatfields and McCoys waged their feud nearby. Over the years, coal company thugs and union bullies shot it out in the struggle to organize the mines.

The union finally won, only to see its success now slipping away.

As the price of a ton of coal has dropped to $20 -- less than a third of the price in the mid-1970s -- the big, unionized coal companies have struggled. Smaller, non-union mines have started up, some just a guise to shed the union.

"Clearly there's a problem," said Michael Buckner, an official at .. the Washington headquarters of the United Mine Workers of America. The union has only about half the 140,000 active members it did in the mid-1970s, he said.

Many other unions lost ground in the 1980s. Where unions represented almost one in three private sector employees in 1970, now only 12 percent are union workers.

"We're just trying to survive these years of a Republican administration that is anti-union to the hilt," said Howard Green, a West Virginia representative with the UMW.

The irony is that mine workers are producing record amounts of coal. Like farmers, they have become victims of their own success.

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