Beneath the earth, a perilous calling

Work: Most of the men who labor in Garrett County's Mettiki coal mine find recompense for the dirt, darkness and risks in the pay and the camaraderie.

October 17, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND -- A thunder-like rumble rolls out of the darkness. Mike Harvey and the rest of his crew mining coal deep inside Backbone Mountain don't even look up. Tons of rock have just fallen, without warning, a few feet away.

"That's normal," says Harvey, nursing a pinch of snuff in his lower lip. For most people, there's nothing normal about working 650 feet underground, or about slogging through water-logged, pitch-black tunnels while watching out for crumbling ceilings and walls.

But these are everyday conditions at the Mettiki coal mine, Maryland's largest, 12 miles south of Oakland. The work is grimy and grueling at times, and a moment's carelessness -- or just plain bad luck -- can get you maimed or killed.

Still, jobs working underground for Mettiki Coal Corp. are among the most coveted in mountainous Garrett County. The typical miner here earns close to $50,000 a year, twice the average family income in this rugged corner of Western Maryland.

It's enough to lure 144 mostly middle-aged men inside Maryland's tallest mountain day after day, despite the disabling injuries and close calls some have had -- and the rock fall four months ago that killed one of their co-workers. A few even say there's no other job they'd rather have.

"I wouldn't want to drive NASCAR [races] every Sunday, and I wouldn't want to walk the streets of New York after midnight, would you?" asks Harvey, a Cheverly native who has been working in the mine for almost 21 years. "With the proper training, this is actually a very safe place to work."

Mining is far safer than it was in the early decades of this century, when an average of 3,300 perished in the coal fields every year -- including a record 362 men and boys in a single West Virginia mine explosion.

Last year, 29 died in mine accidents nationwide, a decline credited to automation reducing the work force and to government-enforced safety practices.

But the death toll is creeping up again. This year, 29 miners have been killed on the job -- five more than at this time last year.

Mettiki had gone without a fatal accident since 1990. Its worker injury rate was one of the best in the industry -- until June 7.

That's when the mountain claimed Roger Sisler, 53, a steady West Virginian who had mined its ore for 20 years.

A small city

Entering Mettiki's D Portal is like stepping into the twilight zone. From the mine entrance, it's five miles through an eerie network of darkened tunnels to the place where miners are tapping the Upper Freeport coal seam.

On a map, the mine looks like the street grid for a small city, albeit one in eternal night. With more than 100 miles of shafts and crosscuts honeycombing the mountain -- and no visibility at intersections -- a mine employee on the surface must direct traffic by radio to prevent collisions.

Most of the men enter the mountain by riding in a fleet of diesel-powered Humvees. Their four-wheel drive is needed to negotiate the mud-slicked, steeply sloping main shaft that leads down to the working portion of the mine.

In the headlights, the rough-hewn walls of the tunnels look ghostly. They have been coated with limestone powder to control potentially explosive coal dust. Concrete pillars and steel beams prop up the roof, which is lined with a steel screen to keep errant rocks from falling. The screen -- anchored by 6-foot bolts driven into the rocky ceiling -- sags in places with the weight of debris.

A breeze of cool air -- about 60 degrees year-round -- wafts through the tunnels. The government requires use of fans to help prevent explosions and to remove harmful gases and dust from the air the miners breathe.

Mining is not the backbreaking, pick-and-shovel labor it was for their grandfathers or even fathers. Today it is almost completely mechanized, laser-guided and computer-controlled.

Some of the coal is extracted using "continuous miners" -- big, steel-toothed grinders that gnaw holes in the seam. However, the bulk of the work is done with the "longwall" -- a massive shearing device longer than two football fields that carves ore from the mountain in swaths, like a giant cheese slicer.

Still, it's hard, grungy work. The noise from the machinery is deafening, and coal dust, mud and water are everywhere. Miners emerge with blackened faces at the end of an eight-hour shift. And when the machines break down or get buried by a rock fall, the men drag out the shovels.

Once the ore has been gouged out of the mountain, it flows to the surface on conveyor belts. The coal is sorted, washed of impurities and dried, then loaded into trucks or rail cars for shipment. Two of Mettiki's biggest customers are West Virginia power plants, their smokestacks visible in the distance across the ridge tops.

Drop in production

Coal has been mined in Western Maryland since the 1780s, with the industry producing 6 million tons at its peak in 1907. Today, two dozen mines extract only half as much, a drop caused largely by competition from petroleum and from more accessible coal elsewhere.

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