TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. – For a resurgent industry struggling to find enough workers, the underground death of 12 miners in West Virginia couldn't have come at a worse time.
High energy prices have Appalachia's coal companies scrambling to expand mining, and to recruit new workers into jobs long seen to be as dangerous as they are dirty. With a shortage of workers now estimated at 4,500 in Kentucky and West Virginia alone, the companies and local officials have been trying to change that perception.
"We're trying to introduce a new generation to mining," said Bruce Ayers, president of Southeast Community College in coal-dependent Harlan County. "It's difficult to overcome the images from West Virginia."
He predicted that Monday's accident would hamper efforts to attract more workers.
Jim Booth, president of Booth Energy in Inez, acknowledged that the mine disaster could hurt his recruiting efforts. He said his company is among those that have unfilled openings because of the miner shortage.
The prolonged surge in coal demand — spot prices for some types of Appalachian coal have doubled since 2002 — has led companies to reopen shuttered mines and add new ones. Sixty-nine mines opened in the region last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Seasonally adjusted employment in coal mining grew from 73,700 in November 2004 to 79,200 in November 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The coal industry is preparing for mass retirements because the average age of Kentucky coal miners is now 48, said Bill Higginbotham, a former coal operator who now heads the Kentucky Coal Academy.
"Half of the work force is expected to retire in five to seven years," Higginbotham said. "High school graduates can go into the mining industry and earn $40,000 to $50,000 a year. This provides an opportunity for a good life."
Some coal producers have been offering pay hikes, improved benefits and bonuses in an effort to attract new miners — and to keep existing employees. Central Appalachia's largest coal operator, Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co., is offering bonuses, zero-premium health insurance and discounted auto and home insurance policies among its perks.
In an effort to ease the shortage, Gov. Ernie Fletcher on Wednesday appropriated $120,000 to pay for creation of the Kentucky Coal Academy to recruit and train new coal miners. He also announced an additional $50,000 for University of Kentucky scholarships for students studying to become coal mine engineers.
"This tragedy reminds us of the dangers involved in mining, and the importance of a continuously educated and trained mining work force," Fletcher said at a press conference.
Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said a lack of trained miners has hindered the mining industry in filling blue-collar positions created by an upswing in the coalfield economy. Part of the problem, he said, is a false perception that coal mining is more dangerous than other occupations. He said that perception will be fueled by the West Virginia mine disaster.
Jobs in manufacturing and construction, Caylor said, have far more workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 5,703 workplace fatalities in 2004. Of those, 152 were in mining and oil and natural gas extraction, compared to 1,224 in construction. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration reported 25 deaths in coal mine accidents that year.
Fletcher said his administration has hired an additional 7 mine safety inspectors with plans to hire seven more, and also is pushing for drug testing.
Fletcher said he also has ordered a study of retreat mining, a dangerous method of extracting coal that claimed the lives of 17 miners in southern Appalachia over the past eight years. He said that study is expected to be completed in early February.
The federal government stepped in last month to help ease the miner shortage in Appalachia, providing grants totaling $6 million to train new coal miners in Kentucky and West Virginia.
Kentucky will use the federal funding to purchase mining simulators for training centers at community and technical college campuses in Cumberland, Hazard, Madisonville and Prestonsburg.
West Virginia will use its funding to establish mine training and placement centers at West Virginia University and at southern West Virginia community colleges. The centers will provide traditional classroom instruction, plus hands-on training with simulators like those used in Kentucky.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he doesn't expect the tragedy in his state to stop people from entering the mining industry, just as the war in Iraq hasn't stopped military enlistments.
"I think there's a lot of similarity when you compare that to the military," he said. "You have certain people who will go to the military and excel and make a career of it, yet the news is full of stories about threatening environments."