Articals of interest to the coal industry.

Friday, October 27, 2006


State's 'bootleg' miners struggling

Oct 27, 2006Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dan Majors

Anthracite mining is a dirty job done by small companies in Eastern Pennsylvania

HEGINS, Pa. -- David A. Lucas comes home from work covered from head to toe with the black grime of his coal mine. The hand he extends to shake with you is clean because it spent the day in a glove. The cigarette jutting from his mouth is white because it's fresh.

He welcomes you into his kitchen through the back door of the house, where he pours you a glass of locally brewed Yuengling beer -- ignoring whatever protest you might make -- and starts talking about the life of "bootleg mining."

"I worked in the mines all my life, since I was 9 years old," he proudly tells you. "At 15, I quit school. I'm 55 years old."

He has spent his years in nine or more mines, some of which he owned, hauling anthracite coal out of the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania, the only place in the United States where it exists.

Because anthracite coal is more difficult to mine -- unlike bituminous coal, it has to be blasted from the earth -- major coal companies don't bother with it. The dozen or so anthracite mines in the Appalachians are small, family-owned operations. Locals, as well as state officials, call it "bootleg mining."

"It's kind of like mining was a hundred years ago, except they got the air tools instead of the hammers and picks," said Paul Wagner, a deep mine specialist with the state Department of Environmental Protection. "Dynamite is common."

Like all mining, it's dangerous. Monday morning, Dale Russell Reightler, 43, of Donaldson, was killed while mining anthracite in the Buck Mountain Slope Mine in Tremont, not far from Hegins in Schuylkill County. It was Pennsylvania's first mine fatality of the year.

Yesterday, state and federal inspectors continued their investigation into what caused the explosion that killed Mr. Reightler. According to DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun, they interviewed the six miners who were in the mine at the time of the blast, then took the rest of the day off to attend the funeral for Mr. Reightler.

The investigators expect to continue their underground inspection today and tomorrow, but Mr. Rathbun could not say when they might have a report ready or when owners R&D Coal Co. will be allowed to reopen the mine.

Mr. Lucas knew Mr. Reightler since he was a boy and gave him his first job in the mines. They worked together off and on for years. Of course, that can be said of many of the men who live in these hills.

"He was a good miner, a safe miner," Mr. Lucas says. He points out that this is the first fatality inside an anthracite mine since 1999.

His wife, LaRae Lucas, wears a T-shirt that boasts "Coal Region Pride." The back of it, visible as she cooks supper on the stove, reads, "You know you're a coal cracker if ..." and goes on to list 10 humorous observations that the locals can laugh about, but a chuckle from someone else might be rude.

Mrs. Lucas first heard the sketchy details about Monday's accident while listening to the police scanner in her kitchen. She immediately called her husband, who was working in his mine, the one he owns with his brother, Darryl. Together, they are D&D Anthracite Coal Co.

"We're all families. We're all neighbors," Mr. Lucas says. "When we heard about it, everyone was wondering was it my husband, was it my son, was it my dad?"

Mr. Lucas was injured in a 1973 mishap, but he's fine now, he tells you. His wife lost a nephew in a mine accident in 1996.

Few people reflect on the men who have lost their lives in the coal mines more than Mr. Lucas. He has built a memorial to them under the big maple tree in his front yard, right along Main Street in Hegins.

It started in 1994, when he bought a wooden statue of a coal miner at an arts-and-crafts show. He brought it home and put it next to his front porch, using a stump in the yard as a pedestal.

In the months that followed, he built alongside the statue a replica of a mine entrance. The roof and walls are made of the distinctively shiny anthracite coal. Everything else is authentic mining equipment discarded long ago: 10 yards of rusted track, an old wooden coal cart filled to the top, boots, picks and shovels. There's also a vintage mine phone and a detonator box. A driver passing by his home might mistakenly think the deep, dark portal actually leads down into the earth.

Yet as striking as the exhibit is, it's the names that give folks pause. The names of coal miners who have died -- some in mining accidents, some of black lung, others of natural causes -- listed on black boards hanging on the miniature mine.

The boards also note mining accidents, such as the H.C. Frick Coke Co. mine explosion in Pittsburgh in 1891, which killed too many miners to name.

People from all over the country have stopped to see the memorial, he says. And sometimes, when a miner passes away, one of the miner's family members will ask to have the man's name added to the memorial.

But Mr. Lucas doesn't dwell entirely on the past. He frets about the future of anthracite mining.

A fifth-generation coal miner, his son, David Jr., 34, worked in the mines for a handful of years but has gotten a job as a welder. It isn't that the work in the mines is too hard or too dangerous. The problem, Mr. Lucas says, is the government. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, he said, seems to be trying to regulate "bootleg mining" right out of existence.

"MSHA, as far as I'm concerned, they did everything under God's sun to put all these mines out of business and put stress on everybody," he growls.

"They came in there and shut me down," he says of an encounter with an MSHA inspector two years ago. "They gave me more violations in one day than I had in 10 years."

Mr. Lucas leaves the kitchen for a moment, then returns with a briefcase filled with legal documents that he slams onto the table.

He opens it and pulls out a copy of a letter he wrote to MSHA after an inspector ordered his mine closed in December 2004. "Christmas time!" he shouts. "They took food from my family at Christmas time!"

The MSHA inspector had faulted Mr. Lucas for a bad ventilation seal in his mine and asked him what steps he would take to correct the problem.

Mr. Lucas responded with a list of six steps detailing a plan for ventilation and how it would be accomplished. But first and foremost, at the top of his list, he wrote: "No. 1 -- Common sense will be used."

The MSHA inspector responded to Mr. Lucas' letter with a letter of his own.

"Common sense," he said, "must either be specifically defined or, if injected as a rhetorical statement, deleted."

Mr. Lucas throws his hands up in exasperation.

"Common sense has kept me and the men who worked for me alive for all these years," he says. "We are being belittled because they don't have common sense or judgment of character."

The black dust that covers his red flannel shirt and blue jeans adds luster to the colorful asides that he mutters under his breath.

"You come to my coal mine to help me out, I'll shake your hand and bow to you," he says. "You come to pick on me, stay out of my territory."

Mr. Rathbun said the mine inspectors have no intention of putting the anthracite miners out of business.

"However, we expect mines to operate safely," he said yesterday. "We believe our anthracite mining laws are fair and reasonable."

The matter involving Mr. Lucas was resolved, but it took him months of fighting the bureaucracy and making modifications to his mine. He says he lost two years of work over the course of three years and was fined more than $40,000.

But he's back in his mine. He and his brother have been working it for five months straight now. In one day this week, they mined 4 tons of anthracite coal.

It sounds like it ought to pay a lot of bills, but it doesn't. Mr. Lucas says he gets $45 a ton.

"I can't afford to hire nobody," he says. "I'm on food stamps for the last eight or nine months.

"I'm broke," he says. "I'm a working man, and I don't know which way to turn."

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