Inside Deep Mine #41

Coal mining now more reliant on technology

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

The shadows get longer and darker as the mantrip descends below the earth’s surface.  That’s the term for an open-air car that takes coal miners to their jobs. During a recent visit to Deep Mine #41 near McClure, Va., I sat on the mantrip, wearing the same protective gear as a miner: blue coveralls with orange, reflective stripes, boots, safety goggles, and a helmet.  Hooked to my belt was a portable SCSR (self-contained self rescuer) that in the event of an emergency would give me 10 minutes of oxygen. That would be enough to get me to one of the mine’s safety stations where larger oxygen sources are located. 

Or so I’m told by Mike Quillen, chairman of Alpha Natural Resources Inc., the company that owns the mine. A coal industry veteran, Quillen seems to enjoy showing visitors around.  He explains that the McClure mine opened about a year ago at the site of an old Pittston mine at a cost of $20 million. When we arrive at the portal, it’s nothing like I imagined. Instead of being dirty, the mine looks like a snow-covered cave.

“That’s rock dust,” explains Henry Keith, Alpha’s manager of deep mines in Virginia.  He’s referring to the thick white dust — made of crushed limestone — that blankets the walls and roof.  The mine uses about 200 tons of rock dust a day, at a cost of about $80 a ton. Spread manually and by machines, rock dusting is a key safety component, because it dilutes the explosive nature of coal dust.

On his way up the corporate ladder from mine foreman, Quillen hired Keith and other miners. In fact, his relationship with many of them stretches back more than 30 years.  Accompanying our group is the mine’s superintendent, Michael Falin, who goes by the nickname of “Head.” Falin began working in the mines 34 years ago, when he was 18, proof, Quillen says, that mining can offer a lifelong career.  “I struggle with the way the media portrays coal miners, as if they are poor people who can’t find other jobs.  These are good jobs,” says Quillen, “paying an average of $72,000 a year in Virginia.  A mine superintendent can expect to make $100,000.  They’ve got the brick homes and the bass boats. They’re affluent people here.”

It takes about 40 minutes to walk the mine. About 81 miners work here, and I see some of them as we slosh down a muddied path to a cross cut where Quillen points out a continuous miner. It’s a huge machine with giant steel bits. The bits claw coal from slabs and grind it up, before spitting it into a shuttle car that hauls the coal to a conveyor belt.  In the old days, miners had to sit on the continuous miner to run it. Now, a single miner can operate the equipment by remote control.  “It used to be you had to be big and shovel fast,” says Quillen. “Now everything is very technical.”

At several locations, large curtains hang to assist in ventilation. I can feel a breeze from fans installed on the surface of a nearby mountain that push fresh air into the mine, helping to sweep away methane and coal dust.  It’s cool down here at 400 to 1,000 feet below the surface, but not cold: the temperature remains pretty constant at 57 to 58 degrees. 

Our last stop is the escape way. The route, about three-quarters of a mile long, leads outside.  It’s separated from the rest of the mine by cinderblock, concrete walls. A bright green, tether line — lit every few inches by reflective illuminators — runs the length of the escape path. “That’s to help the miners in case they get disoriented during an emergency,” Keith says.  To drive home his point, he tells our group to “Cut your helmet lamps.” We shut them off; the mine goes totally black.

Back in the mine office, there’s an easy give-and-take between Quillen and the miners. Before long, they’re rehashing the days of the last violent coal mine strike in Virginia, the Pittston strike of 1989. “This hat,” Quillen says, pointing to the dirty beige helmet he has worn for years, “is the one they beat me up in during the strike. I went back in there and got it.”

Quillen volunteers that he keeps his first-class mine foreman certification up to date.  To renew every two years, he takes an eight-hour course.  Asked why he goes to the trouble, he responds, “It keeps you up to date and informed.”  But there’s another reason, too. “Out of respect for these guys and all that they do.”

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