Students weigh in on shuttering coal mines

Published 6:01 am Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Should coal mines be shuttered? Taylor Ganger, one of my students in my advanced composition class at Edison State, brought this up recently. I encouraged my students to lay out the pros and cons, weighing the strength of the positions and arriving at their own conclusions.

As I left Harlan County on 119 a week ago on Saturday, I counted the empty coal cars — 100 before the foliage blocked my views. And I talked with my nephew Hunter, age 12, whose dad is operating a huge diesel-powered scoop which cleans runways and a truck at a strip mine outside of the city of Harlan. Hunter’s father, Clark, recently posted on Facebook, “Feels so good to be back in COAL.”

This all made me think about the 1980s when as academic dean of Southeast Kentucky Community College, I was required to teach a single class to prove I was suited for tenure as an associate professor. I taught an English composition class, and the vast majority of my students were majoring in mining technology. I determined that we would tour three very different types of coal mines during the semester, and I made the arrangements: Lynch, Kentucky., longwall mining; Benham, Kentucky., conventional mining; Closplint, Kentucky., where the coal was low, and I mean low. (When I left Urbana College as a full professor and Director of Teacher Education to take the job in eastern Kentucky, I promptly enrolled in a class in introduction to coal mining as I knew knowledge of this industry would be essential to any success I might have as an administrator).

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Longwall mining at Lynch. I watched the work of hydraulic ceiling supports as the shearers cut coal out of the face in an area where the ceiling was 15 or more feet high, quickly and easily removing coal and loading it. Benham, with conventional mining, was more labor intensive. After explosives had blown out a coal seam, the top was pinned and the coal was loaded on a conveyor belt. The ceiling was about eight to 10 feet high. Closplint was different and we duck-walked as the ceiling was not more than 40 inches high. When I got out of that mine, clad in a helmet and coveralls with knee pads, I was relieved — and proud.

My class and I saw no mountain-top removal or strip mining as that was yet to come to Harlan County except where it was hidden away from view where wildcatters went to coal-rich areas on weekends and stole coal. This latter process is plentiful now. In stripping, coal seams are located and the rock and soil over the seams are blasted and the coal extracted. I’m very familiar with this process as when I travel regularly to the Oven Fork Mercantile to visit the owner/artist there at the Harlan-Letcher county lines, I view the barren, alien-looking mountains and the signs along the highway which warn of blasting.

Back to my students at Edison State and our work on persuasive arguments. First, their arguments in favor of closing all coal mines in the U.S.: Coal is a natural resource and continued use is not sustainable. Medical issues arise with the miners and the large numbers of miners under age 40 who are being diagnosed with Black Lung. Coal ash and other toxins have negative impacts on persons who live in the area. When outside coal companies control an area, there tends to be a loss of independence among those living there as they come to count on the companies to address problems. With community colleges now located within driving distance throughout the nation, persons can get post-high school education and skills and get jobs not in the coal industry — although they may need to leave the area to claim those jobs. Reclamation of lands and subsidence create environmental problems such as flooding as it is virtually impossible to restore land and water tables once mining has occurred.

The arguments my students posited for continuing with coal mining were the following: Coal is safer than nuclear as an energy source. To shutter coal mines is to destroy the coal-mining communities, their economies, and create ghost towns. Although the cost to transition the coal workforce to other employment is high and some may be reluctant to make the transition, a large number will. The culture of entire regions, the art, music, religion, family values, hunting and gathering, will be destroyed. Families will be decimated, split up, disengaged.

I always tell my students that they must weigh the arguments, that the weight they assign will differ from the weight others assign to each component. It comes finally down to a decision: Shut ‘em down now or give the coal regions time to make adjustments, attract other industries or let the coal industry die a natural death as the coal markets decline, and the coal seams that are economically feasible to recover declines.

Finally, ethics and values should always be a part of the decisions we make as we are talking about human lives here.

And what role do those whom we send to D.C. play in helping us work through the issues we face? And how much do the hard labor, coal severance taxes, income taxes, lost lives, maimed workers count as we face these changes? Mitch McConnell, how much thought have you given to the state you represent in Congress, the entire state, and not just Louisville, Frankfort and Lexington.

Dr. Vivian Blevins is a Harlan County native. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College in Ohio. Reach her at