The miners in Coal are hardworking, blue-collar Americans struggling for a paycheck. But this isn't the kind of mine America's coal comes from.
I spend a lot of time saying bad things about coal. I often—almost daily—repeat Dave Roberts' line that "coal is the enemy of the human race." Some people—usually people who are in the pocket of the industry—try to confuse being anti-coal with being anti-coal miner. I assure you that is not the case. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the humble heroes who crawl under mountains and dig out the fossils that light up so many homes. At the risk of sounding corny or like I'm writing copy for a beer ad (or a reality show), these folks are the real salt of the earth, hardworking American heroes, taking on perilous work to put food on the table back home.
So I'll admit I was a bit nervous tuning in to the the premier episode of Coal, the new reality show airing on Spike that follows the workers of the Cobalt Coal Corporation down into the mine. I knew going in that I was probably going to love the people, and hate what they were producing. Fortunately, the show actually winds up giving the viewer a hell of a lesson about how coal actually isn't (or shouldn't be) as cheap as the industry's master marketers are always telling us.
Coal is produced by Thom Beers, who has already brought the blue-collar, testosterone-fueled (and enormously popular) shows Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers to American small screens. The show is set around—and mostly in—the Cobalt Mine in Westchester, West Virginia, smack-dab in the heart of Appalachian coal country. The miners, to borrow a line from Tim Goodman in the Hollywood Reporter, seem to have "crawled out of central casting," their hardened and rugged faces covered in coal dust. Andy Christian, Sr. the grizzled veteran whose careful hand operates the "continuous miner," a giant machine with a rotating steel drum that looks like something out of Mad Max and makes short work of the hardest stone, is called by bosses "the best miner in West Virginia," and imparts wisdom to a crew that includes his son, Andy Christian, Jr. The company is a newly-formed, small-time operation, and the financial struggles are a main storyline. The owners are there, on-site, everyday, monitoring their investment.
The miners in Coal are hardworking, blue-collar Americans struggling for a paycheck. But this kind of small-scale, underground mining is not, in reality, the type of mine where the majority of American coal comes from. It is, however, exactly the type of coal mining that the silk-suit wearing industry fat cats want Americans to think of when they think of coal mining.
The vast majority of coal produced in the United States today comes from surface mines, increasingly the brutally destructive practices of mountaintop removal. This is nothing like the careful, deliberate mining we see in Coal, nor does it provide anywhere close to the numbers of mining jobs that traditional underground mining does.
For example, Montana, with only 942 full-time miners, produces more than 30 percent more coal than Virginia, which employs 5,262 miners. In Montana, the mining is done with massive machines and relatively little labor. In Virginia, they still dig tunnels under the mountains. The incredible productivity of mountaintop removal and other surface mining operations makes mining jobs like those seen here in Coal a thing of history.
If all coal mines in the country were on the same scale as Cobalt, and if all coal companies operated like Cobalt, using the pillar drilling technique that you'll learn all about watching the show, coal mining would be—dare I say it?—sustainable.
If it weren't for the massive, monstrous surface mining operations that have become the industry standard over the past couple of decades, the price of coal would probably increase. And that would be better for companies like Cobalt, and better for the miners too.
Coal airs on Spike on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. Watch the trailer below, or go to the show's website to see the first episode in its entirety.
Preview What Happens This Season On Coal
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Photo: Andy Christian, Sr. and Andy Christian, Jr., from Spike.