January 5, 2006

West Virginia miners drawn by money and solidarity

By Jon Hurdle

TALLMANSVILLE, W., Virginia (Reuters) - The coal miners of
West Virginia, scene of a deadly disaster this week, stay in
their dangerous profession for the good pay and benefits,
family tradition and a solidarity unknown in other jobs, miners
and officials said on Thursday.

Three days after 12 men died in the state's worst mining
accident since 1968, industry insiders said the hardships of
working hundreds of feet underground are largely overlooked by
those who do the job.

"When you're down there, you're family," said Sandy
Spotloe, 53, who worked as a miner for six years until 1985 and
was the first woman in her family to do the job.

Spotloe, who knew four of the 12 victims, said mining is
dangerous, but she predicted that once the shock of the
disaster wore off, West Virginia miners would be back at work
as usual. "It can happen in any working area. You keep on
going," she said.

Denver Anderson survived the Sago blast. He was with a
group of men on their way into the mine when the blast occurred
at the start of Monday's early-morning shift and who quickly
returned to the surface. He speculated it was caused by

"I think it's a safe mine," he said. "I don't think the
company could have done anything about it." He said he will
return to work when the mine reopens, perhaps next week.

The cause of the blast was still not known. It occurred in
a recently closed section of the mine, which employs about 145
miners and produces about 800,000 tons of coal annually.

Since October, the Mine Safety and Health Administration
has issued 50 citations to the Sago mine, including some in
December for accumulation of combustible materials such as coal
dust. The agency said it would investigate the explosion.

But Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association, a
group representing coal producers, said people should not
assume International Coal Group Inc., which recently bought
Sago, ran an unsafe operation.


"Many of those violations were written during an inspection
asked for by International Coal Group after they bought the
mine so they could correct any problems," Hamilton said.

Anderson, 61, became a miner 14 years ago after being laid
off from the lumber business, another one of West Virginia's
leading employers. Despite the deaths, he plans to stay.

"I'm not doing anything else - not at my age," he said.

West Virginia miners make about $50,000 a year. The state
was the third-poorest U.S. state in 2003, according to U.S.
Federal Reserve statistics, with per capita income of $24,542
compared with the nationwide average of $31,472.

The irony of the Sago disaster was that West Virginia
mining had its safest year ever in 2005, with just three
fatalities, statistics show.

West Virginia mining fatalities dropped to 118 in the 1990s
from 387 in the 1970s and 800 in the 1960s.

Dan Miller of the West Virginia Coal Association said the
Sago disaster would likely deter some would-be miners, but
predicted that the industry would continue to benefit from the
family traditions that led many into the profession. Many
miners are the sons and grandsons of miners.

Coal mining accounts for 40,000 jobs in West Virginia,
generates $3.5 billion a year in revenue, and makes up 13
percent of the state's economy.

Non-miners, too, recognize the financial rewards of mining
compared with other local jobs. John Casto, 46, a carpenter
whose father was a miner, said miners get good pay, health
insurance and paid vacations.

"A lot of these jobs around here don't give you insurance
and vacations," he said.

And he said miners seem to have a special bond with their
jobs and with each other. "One of those men told me he would
die in that mine," Casto said. "Now he has."