For decades, coal was one of the most influential industries in America, powering businesses, heating homes, and providing many rural communities with well-paid, often unionized jobs. But since then, researchers arrived at the consensus that mining coal is bad not only for the environment and the climate, but public health too—which has prompted a backlash that has damaged the industry. The New York Times, for example, reports that coal production is headed toward its lowest point in 35 years. Also, three of the largest coal producers in the country have declared bankruptcy in a six-month span, and since 2014, more than 191,000 U.S. miners have lost their jobs.
In West Virginia, stricter environmental controls and the availability of natural gas has resulted in widespread job losses and mine closures. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Gary Campbell, a miner in Fairmont, West Virginia, about some of the dangers of his job and how he copes with many Americans’ increasingly negative perception of coal. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Green: How did you get this job?
Campbell: I went to college for business administration, but I wasn't on a full ride. I needed money, so my dad, who worked in the mines, got me a part-time job. I stayed in school part-time and worked at the mines full-time because the money's really good. I just kind of stayed with it, even after school.
Green: How long have you been working in the mines?
Campbell: In 2001, I was working for a contractor doing construction at the mines and I’ve been working at Murray Energy since 2004. I’m on my 13th year; I’m salaried and a part of the union. My parents really didn't want me to work in the mines because it's dangerous. They wanted my brothers and I to go to school, and try to get out of the mines to pursue other things. But, it's just really hard to pass up that kind of money.
Mining is just a really good living in this area. There's not a whole lot in Fairmont, West Virginia, that pays as well as the mining industry. There’s only 30,000 people here. There’s not a whole lot being mass-produced around here either, but there is an abundance of coal mines.
Green: What is an average day in the mines like?
Campbell: Every day is different for me. I can be laying train rails outside, or running heavy equipment like dozers and end loaders into the mines, or changing belt lines. We do everything from shoveling dust to fire bossing, which is doing gas checks all over the mines. We usually carry supplies and pull them across the mines, because the distance from where we go underground to where we actually mine the coal is 23 miles. An elevator takes us down about 900 feet, and then we work a typical eight-to-10-hour shift.
Green: Are you in the mines that entire time during your work hours?
Campbell: You have your 30-minute lunch break and then you get a lot of downtime because you can’t be in certain areas when people are doing specific tasks. For example, if we're moving heavy equipment underground, you can't be by the air split in case of a fire because you'll be hit with all the smoke.
Green: You said that your parents didn't want you to work in the mines because it's a dangerous job. What are some of the things that can go wrong?
Campbell: There's fire, roof falls, working with gases, and then there's always the worry of black lung. I know they've done a lot of things to help prevent it, but you still have dust everywhere. My dad has gotten hurt a couple of times. When I was in high school, my dad was working in the mines and the top of the mine fell in on him. It covered him up and broke his back. We're dealing with really heavy—sometimes 30-ton—equipment underground. I remember my dad getting 30 stitches when I was little because a piece of equipment broke and cut his face.
I’ve personally never had more than a mashed finger or two. There have been two fatalities since I've been at that mine: One of them was a fall, where some men were just sitting around talking and the top caved in. The other was an accident where something heavy slipped, and a bar came off of a piece of equipment and struck a guy right in the head. There have been accidents, but those are definitely the most severe. So that's kind of scary.
Green: As America refocuses on clean energy, it is shifting slightly away from coal. What does it feel like to work in the mines during that transition?
Campbell: There have been huge changes. Four or five years ago, I think 45 percent of the power in this country was run by coal. I think we're down to 30-some percent now, so it has definitely shifted to gas. A lot of the changes are coming from the EPA: It’s hard to compete with the regulations they put on these power plants. There are not the same kinds of regulations against natural gas as of yet. These changes have created major cutbacks since I've been around. In the last five years, I've seen the mines in this area lose so many people. More than half the mines in my area when I first started are now gone.
As much as I didn't want to be in the mines, there is a sense of pride now that I’ve done it for a while. The people around here have always worked in the mines. My dad worked in the mines; his dad worked in the mines. It's been passed down in a way, even though I didn't want it to. It's always been a really good living, and you see all that pride they get from it. There's a lot of history behind the coal. In one of the World Wars, coal miners didn't have to go to the draft because we helped produce all the steel for army tanks.
Green: Do you feel that pride disappearing now that the industry is declining?
Campbell: Yeah, definitely. People are really against us. When my wife and I travel out West and I tell people what I do, some people are like, “Oh, that's neat” or, “You don't look like your typical coal miner.” Then you have people that are just like, “I don't know why you would do that. You're hurting everybody.” It's tough.
Green: How do you deal with those negative perceptions of your work?
Campbell: It's upsetting. What we do, it does help provide for people. I don't think we're really hurting people the way they think we are, but everybody has their own opinion.
Green: What motivates you to stay in the industry?
Campbell: Besides the money and providing for my family, I don't want to see the older people that I work with lose all their pensions. They were promised something. You don't want to leave anybody stranded. They're worried about all the bankruptcies, and I hate to bail on people that have done a lot for us in this area.
Green: You mentioned that you grew to like the mines. How did that happen?
Campbell: I think it's the pride of the older guys, and the camaraderie I’ve made with them. Our mines are big, so we have guys from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and Virginia that all travel just to work here. Some of them guys are driving two and a half hours each way. It's nice that, for the most part, the people are pretty good.
Green: What do you think is the most challenging part of your job?
Campbell: People tend to think that coal miners are uneducated lower-class people with sketchy backgrounds. It's just not true—some of the smartest people I've met work in the mines. And they’re some of the most honest and caring people I've ever been around. We do what we have to do to provide for our families. Shouldn't everyone?
The challenges have changed. Now, I think the most challenging part of it is just hearing all the criticism: how bad the mining industry is for the country and the world, and that we're ruining the ozone. There's just so much negativity around the coal mining right now, and that's challenging because you just get tired of people bashing what you do for a living.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a construction worker, a civil engineer, and a petroleum engineer.
This article is part of our Inside Jobs project, which is supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.