A new generation of miners is in training in central Appalachia, where a onetime hub of the nation's coal industry is recovering from prolonged...

Share story

NORA, Va. — A new generation of miners is in training in central Appalachia, where a onetime hub of the nation’s coal industry is recovering from prolonged slumps that shuttered mines, bankrupted companies and whittled away the life from communities.

Vernon Johnson, 34, left his job in the trucking industry to become one of the new faces entering the midnight blackness of the subterranean mazes. Now he works for Alpha Natural Resources, wearing the soot-crusted red helmet of an apprentice miner while working under this patch of southwestern Virginia.

He and other new miners are replacing older workers who are retiring just as the world market is demanding more coal. Johnson hopes that by early next month, he will be a full-fledged miner making more than $50,000, plus health and pension benefits.

Standing on the cool, muddy floor in Roaring Fork Mine No. 3, wearing muddy boots and with a mud-splattered face, Johnson explained what lured him underground for work that has felled thousands of men and crippled thousands more.

“Yeah, it’s tough, and yeah, it’s dirty,” he said over the jackhammer clatter of a machine tearing into the earth. “But when I heard there was a chance to work in the mines, I hopped right to it. … Good work close to home hasn’t been easy to come by around here.”

When coal companies had their first job fairs last year, 800 people showed up in Castlewood, an Appalachian hamlet not far from Nora. The companies had expected 200. Area community colleges that five years ago could not find enough students who wanted to take mining certification or safety classes are ramping up their programs.

“Coal jobs have always been the best-paying jobs around here,” said Lawrence Hollyfield, 56, a second-generation coal miner who retired several years ago and now teaches courses in mining safety at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. “The pay is better than Wal-Mart, better than a job in the prisons. That’s why these kids are going back into the mines.”

Today’s mining is a mix of 21st-century technology and old-era grit. Cramped shaft elevators and rickety, open-air shuttle cars still sink into the mountains and take miners to the low-slung tunnels. Workers still move on all fours in crawl spaces so they can mine hard-to-reach seams. It’s still dark, dirty, dusty and, in some cases, dangerous.

But the pickax and shovel days are long gone. Heavy cutting and lifting are executed in a ballet between remote-controlled rock-cutting machines, called “continuous miners,” and shuttles that zip loads of coal through passages. Automatically controlled conveyer belts haul the coal hundreds, sometimes thousands of feet to the surface — work once done by pit ponies.

Often, workers in the mines stand yards from the action, controlling the continuous miners and other equipment as if they were steering hulking, remote-controlled toy cars.

“If you like playing video games, this is the job for you,” said George Owens, a miner-turned-executive for Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha, somewhat jokingly referring to the digital automation that much of mining has become.

For years, coal companies large and small in central Appalachia — a region that includes southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky — did not need to recruit anyone new.

Coal prices were down through much of the 1980s and ’90s as the industry nationwide was struck by oversupply and by the decline of the U.S. steel industry.

In addition, new technologies meant that fewer strong backs were needed to burrow into the coal-bearing stretches. The Appalachian coal miner seemed a vanishing species as recently as several years ago, and the numbers appeared to prove it: Virginia, which produces the ninth-largest amount of coal in the country, had 10,000 miners in 1987; by last year, the state had 5,000.

The average age of a coal miner is about 52, according to federal statistics, meaning that over the next decade, a steady stream of workers will be leaving the mines for good.

But coal still produces more than half the electricity generated in the U.S., and expanding economies in this country and China have created a huge demand for electricity.

The National Mining Association expects U.S. coal production to be a record 1.14 billion tons this year, up from 1.11 billion last year. And the increase comes amid rising prices: The price of coal from central Appalachia has risen to nearly $60 a ton from roughly $30 a ton two years ago, according to industry analysts.

“We were having a tough time there for a while,” said Dink Shackleford, executive director of the Virginia Mining Association. “But people realize mining has its benefits and it can help them support their families.”