CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The reality television lens is zooming in on West Virginia's coal culture for a series aimed at celebrating the working man, but regulators worry that sending camera crews into underground mines could lead to disaster.
Spike TV and Canadian mining company Cobalt Coal say the series, "Coal," will start shooting in November at the operator's underground Westchester mine in McDowell County, deep in the southern coalfields. Ten one-hour episodes are expected to air next spring.
But the idea has regulators, the governor and the United Mine Workers union worried in a state still reeling from the deaths of 29 West Virginia miners in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine April 5.
There's also concern that tiny Cobalt, with only two dozen underground employees, doesn't represent the reality of an industry dominated by corporate giants with thousands of workers and dozens of mines. UMW spokesman Phil Smith said the show couldn't be representative of coal production because most mines have 150 to 300 workers.
But Cobalt President Thomas Roberts said viewers will see the reality that counts: "Mining is a very regimented type of environment and highly regulated, and we're going to operate in a safe, productive manner," he said.
That has done little to assuage the fears of government officials. Kevin Stricklin, an official with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the show would be an opportunity to educate viewers about the nation's coal mines, but added that safety must be paramount. Gov. Joe Manchin was even more direct.
"That's just too dangerous," Manchin said. "That's not the place to do it."
And West Virginia mine safety chief Ron Wooten was direct in what would need to happen before cameras start rolling:
"Safety standards will be met or this will not take place in West Virginia," he said.
Conditions are particularly dicey at Westchester. The mine's coal comes from the Sewell seam. It's known as a highly valuable coal sold for making steel, but the seam is notoriously thin, forcing miners to work in a space just 42 inches high 600 feet underground.
Roberts said there's no reason to worry: The filming will be carefully controlled, TV crews will undergo 80 hours of mine safety training and his 23 miners have 15 to 20 years experience apiece. The 63-year-old has worked underground more than 40 years and said the miners know what they are doing. They will be paid only by Cobalt — not Spike.
Spike TV spokesman David Schwarz reiterated that safety is "priority one" and said it's also part of the show.
"Everybody uses coal, and not many people know about the dangers and the hard work that go into getting it," he said. "This is a fascinating world that we think our audience will love. ... The economy is tough, the jobs are tough, and these are people who are doing dangerous jobs to put food on the table."
A deal was finalized a few weeks ago after the show was in development for a year, he said. However, officials waited to make an announcement until 33 miners were rescued from an underground mine in Chile.
The show comes on the heels of Cobalt's recent reorganization, which brought the exit of two top executives. The company has raised $800,000 in new capital and is leasing a refurbished mining machine for Westchester because the old one kept breaking down, said Cobalt's Chief Financial Officer Bob Gillies.
The company hopes to invest elsewhere in the state once that mine us up and running, Gillies said.
Gillies said he's confident the experienced workers at the Westchester mine won't sacrifice safety for a TV show and added that there are very few accidents given all the work done underground.
"What we're wanting to convey is to get people to appreciate this coal business and the fact that these are solid citizens who come out here and leave their families and work — and it's very important to the economy," Roberts said. "And we can do it in a safe manner."