Thursday, December 19, 2002

Family connection runs deep

Coal-digger has two miner children

By Casey Laughman
The Associated Press

MIDDLEBOURNE, Ohio - It takes two generations of the Beaver family about an hour, maybe a little more, to get to the coal.

Interstates don't run to where they earn their livings. Rick, 56, drives about 32 miles and his son Charlie, 33, drives about 45 miles to Alledonia, near Beallsville, down on the Ohio River. Matt, 23, drives about 65 miles from his home in Cambridge to Glouster, near Athens.

Rick and his sons have worked at mines as close as about a half-hour's drive and as far away as Lisbon, about two hours away. As mines keep closing and jobs keep disappearing, they have to travel farther to make their living.

It's not easy. The roads wrap around the hills and plunge down in the valleys of southeast Ohio. After occasionally dodging deer and navigating hairpin turns, they pick up their lunch buckets, put on their helmets and catch an express elevator several hundred feet underground to the coal.

They're part of a diminishing profession in Ohio.

For years, Ohio's coal industry boomed, bringing high-paying jobs to areas that needed them most. In 1970, Ohio turned out more than 55 million tons of coal and the industry employed about 8,500 people in the state. Last year, the industry produced about 25 million tons of coal and employed 2,720 people.

The passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 means that Ohio's high-sulfur coal has to be cleaned to ensure it conforms to federal standards for sulfur dioxide emissions from burning coal. That requirement has caused demand for Ohio's coal to decrease, said Doug Crowell of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

"Since that time, our production has steadily declined," Crowell said. "From a marketability standpoint, nearly all of our coal is labeled as high-sulfur. When you wash our coal, it seems as even though the best sulfur-reduction you're going to achieve is 50 percent," which still results in illegal sulfur dioxide levels, he said.

Rick has been mining coal for almost 33 years. Charlie and Matt have been working the mines for 13 and five years. When Rick started, he said, families weren't that common in mines. Many of his co-workers now are part of a couple of generations working the mines.

"It used to be, if you was a company man, they wouldn't let your sons or your daughters come in," he said. "But it's all changed now."

In an area where good jobs are hard to find, the Beavers say they have carved out good livings for themselves by descending into darkness and bringing out the light. Underground coal miners earn, on average, about $54,000, according to the department.

On a cold morning recently, Matt is seated on a couch in the living room of his house just east of Cambridge. Lights are on, SportsCenter plays on the TV and it's comfortable inside.

You can thank what he does for a living, says Matt, who began working in the mines two days after he turned 18.

"I come home and my house is warm," he said. "If I want to turn a light on, I can. Coal's a big reason for that."

About 90 percent of the state's high-sulfur coal is burned to provide electricity.

Rick, whose gray hair is slowly taking over his red goatee, is enthusiastic when he talks about going into the mine.

"It's just like walking in my house," he said. "There's no difference to me, it don't bother me, I've been doing it so long."

He started out as a regular mine worker, but became a supervisor in 1974.

"I got tired of the strikes," he said with a smile. "Never did draw a full paycheck when I was in the union, seemed like. So I got my state papers and became a boss."

He runs his own crew now and he says he plans to stick with mining until he retires.

"I wouldn't want to do anything else," he said. "I've made a good living coal mining. I've raised five kids with it. My wife's never had to go to work."

Rick's wife of 34 years, Judy, knows mining. Her father, uncle and grandfather also were miners.

"I used to worry," she said. "I said, `What's the use of worrying.' Everything's dangerous."

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