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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 29, 2004

Anthracite hard, life harder for miners of Pennsylvania

By Helen O'Neill
Associated Press

HEGINS, Pa. — The scars are barely visible much of the time, hidden beneath a veil of black. Only in the evenings, when the men wash away the day's grime, do they come to light.

David A. Lucas, left, his cousin, Ernie Lucas, front, and his son, David A. Lucas Jr., ride to the surface after a full day of mining anthracite coal at the family mine in Good Spring, Pa.

Carolyn Kaster • Associated Press

They snake across the men's hands and faces and necks — thin, squiggly lines and thick, fat creases, and sometimes great gouges torn from their skin.

But the strangest thing about the scars is their color. They are a deep and startling blue.

They tell a story, these odd-shaped wounds, of a dark, dangerous world that men cling to, women fear, and sons stubbornly follow their fathers into, even though there is little money, little future and very little hope.

It is a world outsiders rarely see. Like the scars, it is largely hidden from view.

There are perhaps 100 independent anthracite miners left in Pennsylvania — fathers and sons, uncles and nephews who work their tiny family mines, blasting and shoveling coal by hand, the way anthracite has been mined for over a century.

Many of their mines are no more than holes, 300 or 600 foot-deep shafts sunk next to the tunnels of abandoned collieries.

They work against all the odds. There is little market left for anthracite — a hard, clean coal that once heated most of the homes in the eastern United States. Bituminous coal, which is inferior, dirtier and easier to mine, is also cheaper. Machines do the work in big company-owned bituminous mines. And the power plants and steel mills buy the cheaper coal.

So fewer and fewer men crawl into the coal holes. And fewer and fewer carry the scars, stained blue by the coal dust that tattoos their wounds.

There are just 12 family-owned anthracite mines left in Pennsylvania, down from 60 in 1995 and 140 a decade earlier.

On the way out

"We're dinosaurs," cries David A. Lucas, a barrel-chested, 53-year-old miner known as David A., whose father and grandfather mined the "hard coal" before him, and whose 29-year-old son, David "Junior" Lucas, would also if only he could make a living at it. Instead, Junior has turned to welding.

David A. Lucas is among a dwindling number of independent anthracite miners in Pennsylvania. "We're dinosaurs," he says.

Carolyn Kaster • Associated Press

Deep inside his mine, the elder Lucas' eyes pierce the dark.

"In a couple of years," he says, "we'll be extinct."

They are descendants of bootleggers, miners left jobless after the Depression and the coal strikes of the early 20th century, who in desperation, sank shafts on the abandoned workings of the big collieries.

At first they were prosecuted and their mines destroyed by the "coal and iron police," but over the years, agreements were worked out and the bootleggers became legalized.

Most started as children "picking rock" — separating the coal from waste outside the mines. In their teens, they headed into the tunnels. The Lucases and the Rothermels and the Shingaras and the Snyders. Ties to family are one reason they fight for a way of life that seems doomed.

But there are more subtle reasons — reasons that emerge in the cool, hissing earth, where everything is black save the beams from the miners' headlamps.

"Listen," David A. Lucas says, tapping with his pick, trying to gauge the thickness of the vein. Lucas is 300 feet underground in the upper level of D & D Anthracite, which he owns with his 38-year-old brother Daryl "Bimmer" Lucas. The lower level, another 300 feet down, was shut down after it flooded.

"If you listen," Lucas says, still tapping, "the vein speaks."

The mine 'speaks'

These are the things that speak to Lucas:

The creaking of the oak beams hammered into the roof, a rudimentary protection against the weight of the Appalachian mountain that rises above them. A sudden hiss of air. A puff from the flame in the safety lamp used to detect deadly methane gas, or indicate "black damp" pockets where there is no oxygen.

The sounds tell Lucas whether it is safe to blast farther into the mountain. They tell him when he should flee.

The Lucas mine is a slope mine, a deep shaft sunk into the earth. To enter, the men crawl into a coal buggy, ducking as it is lowered into the shaft. Bimmer operates the hoist from giant levers in a shack on top. The same buggy is used to haul out five-ton loads of coal.

David A. spends six or seven days a week in the mine with the Lucases' one employee, their 42-year-old cousin, Ernie Lucas, whose wild-eyed rantings above ground give way to calm workmanship below.

"Down here, there are no problems," Ernie Lucas says, as he crouches in the gangway. "Down here, it's peaceful."

Unfair penalties?

In this particular week, the Lucases mine about 75 tons of coal, which they sell to a local processing plant for $35 or $40 a ton. After expenses, they each take home about $75. Some weeks are better, some not.

The Lucas' have lost count of times they have been temporarily closed or cited for violations of safety, health and other regulations — citations they claim are often frivolous. It's a common refrain among the miners, some of whom boast about chasing state and federal inspectors off with guns.

They argue that they are unfairly penalized by mining laws that favor the big mines. Ventilation systems, for example, are very different in bituminous and anthracite mines, yet the same rules apply to both.

"We're not thieves or bums," Bimmer cries. "We shouldn't be penalized for doing an honest day's work."

The inspectors say they are just doing their job.

Fading occupation

Black Diamond, the miners call anthracite, with its lustrous glow and smokeless burn. Pennsylvania has the country's only deposits, thick veins that, on a map, look like four fingers extending 1,400 miles across the northeastern part of the state.

One hundred years ago, more than 100 million tons of anthracite was being mined from this region. Towns like Coaldale, Carbondale, Minersville, and Shamokin sprang up beside the collieries. Huge processing plants, called breakers, towered over the land.

Today, the neat row houses of the miners cling to the hills, while the ruins of old collieries sink, ghostlike, into the mountains.

Anthracite production is down to about 2 million tons a year, much of it from a few large strip mines. The independent deep mines produce about 200,000 tons.

"Ten years ago, I thought there was a future," says Cindy Rothermel, sitting in a shanty by the entrance to the Pottsville mine she owns with her husband, Randy.

"No longer," she says.