There are many jobs out there that require the same skill levels in machine operation as coal mining. What makes coal mining different is the danger and long term health issues posed to coal miners.
In other words, if coal companies paid miners the same rates people get for working in above ground factories, no one would work in the mines. There has to be some incentive to work there—some extra compensation for the sacrifices to lure people in.
Add to this the economic desperation often found in areas dominated by a coal mono-economy and you have the perfect mixture for the exploitation of a workforce. But why end there?
Surface mining may not be quite as dangerous and demanding on the body as underground—hence the reason companies pay surface miners less—but what damage isn’t being done to the miners themselves is being carried over to entire communities. Flooding from changed hydrology, silica dust wafting down during dry conditions and blasting, loss of fresh water sources through the destruction of mountain aquifers and covering of streams, and the contamination of water from hydraulic fluids, oil changes made by rushed heavy equipment mechanics, and the minerals and heavy metals that are more easily soluble (picked up by water) once crushed into dust.
We also can’t forget the issues of diesel exhaust from equipment and coal trucks that has been linked to lung cancer, coal dust along haul routes, and the slurry impoundments containing billions of gallons of coal fines and chemicals that fill countless hollows behind company made dams.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Appalachian people who live in the coalfields aren’t paid for these sacrifices like underground miners are.
That’s why when I hear political candidates scoff at “placing debts on future generations,” I get a little irritated. They are typically the same ones who aren’t counting the debts to our children left in the form of poor health—the “externalized” costs that no one likes to admit.
These points have been made by many folks aside from myself for a long time. The reason they have to be repeated is truly sad.