Coal: Fond memories and nightmares of Black Diamond


As a coal cracker from Mt. Carmel, PA., I’ve always had a kind of love-hate relationship with coal. During my youngest years, I had to be more than grateful for the jobs coal mining provided. After coming from Italy, my immigrant father put a roof over our heads and food on the table by working in the mines. That was our admission ticket to the 1939 home of our dreams—the one on the 300 hundred block of South Grape Alley between Maple and Vine Streets— all decked out with the latest outhouse, icebox and a coal-fired kitchen stove.

The soot-faced miners who exited the dark coal shafts after braving dangers of all kinds deep in the belly of the earth were my childhood heroes. They knew something about almost everything: explosives, plumbing, electricity, carpentry, you name it. We depended on their varied skills and stoic bravery for our very livelihoods. I fondly remember, as a kid, mindlessly jumping slow moving freight trains to skinny dip in “bottomless” abandoned coal mine holes like the “Sandy” between Kulpmont and Mt. Carmel. What would we have done without the minersand the mines?

Then one day in 1946 when I was seven, our family was struck by tragedy. That morning, through some strange intuition of impending danger, my Mom begged my Dad not to go to work. Despite her pleading, he set out for the mine anyway. In the afternoon, there was a knock at the door. It was a miner covered in soot, who obviously hadn’t yet made his regular after-shift “beer garden” stop. He told my Mom what she already knew: my Dad had been hurt buried, as it turned out, by a mine cave-in at one of the unregulated mines where he worked that day.

My Dad fought for his life for eight months in the Ashland Hospital. On the day of my First Communion, with the same tactfulness my friends tell me I have never lost, I visited him and said: “Hey, Pop, they’re sayin’ you’re gonna die. Is that true?” Eventually, he left the hospital permanently disabled and without employer or government disability benefits. He got $10 a month from the union for two years.

My grandfather always used to boast about his love for my Dad by saying: “When he finished eighth grade, I took him with me to the mines.” He meant it. My father on the other hand used to tell me over and over again: “I would rather see you dead at my feet than to ever see you step one foot in the mines.”

My resourceful mother, who today at 102 remains more strong willed than a mine mule, worked every day at a piece work rate sewing on the top elastic band in a panty factory, evenings at Nicoletti’s Restaurant and weekends catering weddings or cleaning houses. She supported her disabled husband and raised three kids all by herself with my Dad’s parents living in our home all the while. I spent years sleeping above my grandfather who coughed all night long from a real case of Black Lung Disease. Gradually, my romantic notions about coal mining receded from memory, even if my admiration for the miners never did.

To this day, I still have mixed feelings about coal, no longer because of personal reasons, but for economic and environmental ones. While coal benefits our economy, it simultaneously pollutes our air, our water and aquatic life and is the main contributing source of damage to the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.

On the one hand, there is a lot to like about coal. It made possible the industrial revolution and all the wondrous advancements we’ve all enjoyed since. The coal industry employs a lot of people. There is a “ton of it” in the ground. A lot of that buried treasure is here in the United States. Coal is cheap. And coal in the ground could last for a long time.

There are about 80,000 to 100,000 coal miners in the United States, oddly just about as many miners as have been killed in mining accidents over the last century. The industry contributes directly or indirectly to 6.8 million jobs and accounts for $362 billion in household income. Though down from 53% in 1997, coal still provides 36% of the electricity generated in the United States and for 40%-50% throughout the world. These are just some of the economic reasons why it is so hard for us to even imagine going “coal turkey.”

But coal is more than plentiful and cheap. It is also dirtyvery dirty. As a group of concerned scientists has said: “Coal is as cheap as dirt, as plentiful as dirt, and as dirty as dirt — since after all, coal is little more than dirt that burns.”

Studies disputed only by the coal industry have found that: “coal causes chronic bronchitis, asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer, when microscopically small particles are inhaled, entering the lungs and thus the bloodstream; “Coal plants pollute our water, our air, our wildlife, produces acid rain; coal emissions are largely responsible for the high concentrations of mercury in the fish we eat; coal is the biggest known contributor of human-made C02 in the atmosphere and therefore is the single largest cause of a potentially catastrophic effects of man-exacerbated climate change.

So-called clean coal technologies come nowhere close to being the solution to all these problems. Clean coal technologies are expensive, reduce the adverse effects of emissions to only a relatively small degree and leave us with the problem of what to do with the dirty stuff once we have captured it.

Bill McKibben is called the “purveyor of fear” by the fossil fuel industry. Respected outside that industry as the best long-time environmental author, Bill McKibben has reported on the scientific evidence which holds that the world can sustain a 2 centigrade increase in temperature without bringing on a global catastrophe. The amount of reserves which fossil fuel companies now have in reserve is five times more than is necessary to launch us over that thresholdand these companies intend to burn it all. A gigantic part of that reserve the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, coal.

In a 2012 speech, CEO of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce Thomas Donahue said we have to use more and more fossil fuels: “We have 1.4 trillion barrels of oil, enough to last at least 200 years. We have 2.7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to last 120 years. We have 486 billion tons of coal, enough to last more than 450 years – and we need to use more of this strategic resource cleanly and wisely here at home while selling it around the world.”

But we already have too much C02 in the atmosphere. Many climatologists believe the safe threshold is 350ppm (parts per million). We are already at 400 ppm. Mr. Donohue’s proposal would raise it 50% to 650 ppm. Notwithstanding, Mr. Donohue’s speech got a standing ovation. At the same time, President Obama has been promoting an “All the above” energy policy. His recent appointments indicate fossil fuels will be a very big part of his energy plans.

As a youngster, the thought of weighing the pros and cons of coal mining never even occurred to me. But now after more than a half century, as I go beyond my childhood experience and consider the benefits and destructiveness of coal on a global scale, I know the evidence is in to support an opinion on the subject.

Coal? Though it feels as though I am biting the hand that fed me to say it, I must admit: There’s more to hate about coal than there is to love. Despite its utility and undeniable benefits, coal and other fossil fuels will eventually do us all in, kind of like the way my Dad’s mine accident did him inslowly, painfully, but surely. It pains me to say it, but the sad truth is that the coal-fired train has already left the station and we and future generations are all on board. Somebody has got to pull the emergency brake cord.

Mannello is a Williamsport consultant specializing in management and customer service training, organizational development, strategic planning and retreat facilitation.