his discharge from military service in World War 2, my father qualified
for a veteran's assistance loan to purchase equipment declared surplus
after the war was over. In 1946, he was able to buy an Allis
Chalmers bulldozer and Northwest 80D power shovel and went into business
surface (or strip) mining coal in central
for strip mining, it had its risks as well. One of the first
contracts my father received was to strip mine 100 acres of
for my father, he had a few successful mining contracts and that allowed
him to buy enough equipment to start building roads and highways, his
true mission from the outset. In 1950, he received his first
highway contract--relocating the state highway that went through a small
community, simply-named, "Number 9". The road sign said
"No. 9" and the community was the mining village that grew
around Fairmont Coal Company's mine number 9 (now CONSOL Coal).
still remember the place today just as when he took me there in the
mid-1950's. No. 9 was the birthplace of the legendary NFL
linebacker, Sam Huff, so what is a dot on the map to you was something
of a shrine to
No. 9 that you know today is not the one that I visited as a boy.
In 1968, the No. 9 mine exploded and some 70 miners died. This
incident is referred to as the
each case, Monongah and
had to be done about mine safety and the
Quecreek mine rescue was certainly not the first successful mine rescue;
many other cases abound. But what made Quecreek so different was
that the American public saw round-the-clock television news coverage.
In the past, only the miners' families waged a vigil and news coverage
consisted of spot reports and updates. For perhaps the first time
in history, the Quecreek viewers got to see and eventually meet the nine
coal miners without the familiar backdrops of the past. Always in
the past, television news gave us a stilted backdrop for these stories
about miners--the coal miner on strike, or the smokestack pollution, or
the acid water flowing into a stream, and so on. But on this one
the press conference, the inevitable question was asked of the Quecreek
miners: Do you plan to return to work in the coal mine? Some
what may be the greatest irony in coal's history, the Quecreek rescue of
nine trapped miners may actually spell the end of the underground coal
mining industry. This televised event, from start to finish, had
to have impressed an entire generation of youngsters that coal mining is
not a safe option for their employment future, regardless of how well
the rescue plan worked. We won't know for a decade or more if
meeting nine miners in our living rooms robs the future of the next
generation of miners. But the possibility is certainly there.
Rodney Dangerfield, coal has never gotten any respect. Which is
sad (for coal). Had the resource been properly managed, we could
have tapped the methane gas to heat homes or run our power plants.
Instead, we let it float away. And we could have developed
methanol  to power our cars. Instead we are dependent on oil
from the most unstable countries on the planet. When we look at
the financial cost of Enron's failure, or the tax subsidies being paid
out in the current "Farm" bill for ethanol  production, or
the petrodollar payments that prop up the various OPEC dictatorships, it
gives one pause as to why we didn't do more with the one energy resource
we know we can count on. Coal, however, is often thought of as our
"misery" fuel. And while coal has caused no end of
misery and pollution, we should not forget that humans will never again
we ever do have to rely on coal for more than our current needs, then
finding the miners to do the work will be a problem. Employment in
the eastern coal fields peaked in the mid-20th century when steam
locomotives ran on the rails and domestic steel production was at an
all-time high. In the last five decades, bituminous coal mining
employment has shrunk precipitously. Productivity gains are part
of the reason. But also, air pollution laws have had a major
effect by causing power plants to replace eastern coal with lower-sulphur
a mine requires skilled engineers, miners, electricians, and mechanics.
Whereas a coal miner once only needed to swing a pick and then shovel
his coal into a cart, the mechanized mine requires teams of miners who
are very sophisticated when it comes to doing what they do. The
Quecreek rescue showed us as to just how sophisticated the modern coal
miner has become.
was mentioned above, the
And now, Quecreek is a turning point. Will we view the rescue as
so much luck? A "made-for-TV" rescue as it were?
Will we view the Quecreek rescue as the dawn of a new era in mining--an
era where tragedy is conquerable? Or will the kids who watched the
whole 3-day episode on TV simply say, "Mining is not for me."?
forty years, we'll know which direction the nation turned when it
arrived at Quecreek. But for now, we are the ones who must answer
the question, "Which way?"
 Methanol--usually referred to as
"wood alcohol" because it was a distillate from the early
charcoal-making process. Methanol is now made from natural gas or
 Ethanol--usually referred to as
"grain alcohol". In this case, made from corn.
Copyright 1990-2005 David G. Allen