Working Underground: Men and women coal miners take pride in their unique profession |

Working Underground: Men and women coal miners take pride in their unique profession

Post Independent/Kelley CoxMiners emerge from the Elk Creek Mine near Somerset in Gunnison County after the day shift. The mine employs 300 miners and is one of the top underground oal-producing mines in the nation. As a state, Colorado ranks No. 6 in coal production.

SOMERSET ” For the next eight hours Laverne Love will be engulfed in darkness.

A small beam coming from a lamp attached to her hard hat will light her way as she works four miles inside a mountain.

Soaking up a little mid-afternoon sunshine, she chats with a co-worker as they wait for the 3:30 swing shift to begin.

It will be Love’s last glimpse of sunshine until she climbs out of bed tomorrow.

For 13 years, Love has been working in the dark as an underground coal miner. Wages lured Love to the mines, but she now loves her job.

“When I came here, I was single and had expenses like everyone else,” she says. “I enjoy working in the mine.”

Love is a shuttle-car operator. She wears large ear covers to hold out the noise. The massive shuttle car takes coal ” up to 12 tons per load ” from the area being mined to the conveyor belt. Back and forth, Love makes a lot of trips to the belt every shift.

“I enjoy what I do,” she says. “I enjoy operating heavy equipment and the wages and benefits are good, too.

“I take pride in doing something that I’m good at. And I am good at it.”

Love, 55, is short and stocky, and one of four women working underground at the Elk Creek Mine. Her husband is also a coal miner. They met at Elk Creek.

The Elk Creek Mine is located near Somerset in Gunnison County just off Highway 133.

Coal mining isn’t an easy job, but Love isn’t scared of a little hard work.

“Coal mining is difficult.” Then she smiles. It’s a proud, cocky smile ” the kind that comes from someone who knows a secret. “It’s a difficult job; coal mining is definitely not for sissies.”

As a woman in a profession dominated by men, Love says she’s just one of the guys ” so to speak.

“I’ve never had any problems. I do my job and they respect that.”

The trip to the face of the mine is flat and fairly smooth terrain.

Love and 30 other miners roll into the darkness to begin their shift in small mine vehicles and four-wheel-drive diesel pickups. One by one, the miners’ lights click on. After the four-mile trip, the Elk Creek Mine swing shift begins.

When Love’s eight-hour shift is over, her face will be dirty and black from sweat and coal dust.

“If you like it, yes, it’s a good profession,” Elk Creek Mine Superintendent Randy Litwiller said. “It’s a good way to make a living and provide for your future.”

As a self-employed truck driver for years in his hometown of Paonia, Dan Gillenwater decided he needed a steady paycheck. By far, the best paycheck around came from the coal mines.

“I got into it for the benefits and the money ” that’s the main reason,” Gillenwater said with a grin. “It’s steady, close to home and this is a good place to live.”

The 1983 Paonia High graduate has now been in the profession for 13 years.

At Elk Creek, which is operated by Oxbow Mining LLC, the average salary combined with benefits is $83,400 a year, with a starting wage of $23.50 an hour.

Virtually all miners give the same answer when asked why they got into mining. Some have more than 30 years experience, but they too clicked on the light and headed underground because of the plump paycheck.

“Yes, it was the money,” said 50-year-old Kevin Lee, who’s been a coal miner since 1982. “It was the highest-paying profession around.”

Almost to a man ” and woman ” the miners of Elk Creek say coal mining is safe.

It’s also a unique profession that isn’t for everyone, and these miners take pride in its uniqueness. The men and women of Elk Creek accept the hard work and enjoy the satisfaction it brings.

They like being coal miners, and wear the pride of their work on their sleeves and faces every time they enter and emerge from the darkness.

After 12 miners were killed in Sago, W.V., the coal mining profession was immediately scrutinized. Another four West Virginia coal miners died in two other accidents. January was a deadly month for the profession. The latest was a Mexico tragedy where 65 miners died.

Love’s face turns serious when asked about coal mining safety. It’s not because she worries about her or her colleague’s safety. She wants people to know that coal mining isn’t that dangerous.

“This is a safe mine. It can be a dangerous job, but this is a safe mine,” she says. “What I tell people is don’t pass judgment on us or coal mining until you’ve been underground.”

Working underground has been Lee’s livelihood for nearly three decades.

“I don’t think it’s for everyone, but it seems to get under your skin and you don’t really want to do anything else,” says Lee, who got his coal mining start at Mid-Continent.

Lee, will soon make the trip to the bathhouse, where he will scrub off the day’s grime. The bathhouse has two sides ” one where they keep their dirty work clothes and the other where they towel off and put on clean clothes.

When the West Virginia tragedies grabbed headlines, the spotlight of safety hit the coal-mining industry squarely in the face.

For Lee, the news reports following those accidents were frustrating.

“It makes it look like it’s taboo to even be a coal miner because they think it’s the most dangerous job in the world. But it’s not,” says Lee, whose hard hat is scraped and scarred from years of underground work.

The underground mines of Colorado have a safe track record. The last major mine disaster in the state with a large number of fatalities was the Mid-Continent Dutch Creek No. 1 Mine explosion that killed 15 on April 15, 1981. The last fatality in the state was in 2000 when a 37-year-old man was killed after being struck by a high-pressure hose that snapped off a piece of equipment. He was killed in the Sanborn Creek Mine, which was operated by Oxbow Mining, the same company that owns and operates Elk Creek.

The U.S. Department of Labor statistics back up what the Elk Creek miners say about mine safety.

In 2004, 51 miners died in U.S. mines. Twenty-eight of the 51 died in coal mines.

Compared to other professions, coal mining’s record is much better. In 2004, there were 1,224 construction-worker deaths; however, there are more workers in the construction trades than coal mining.

United States coal-mining fatalities have been pretty consistent over the past few years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor: 27 died in 2002; 30 in 2003; 28 in 2004; and 22 in 2005.

In Colorado, there was one fatality in 1999, two in 1998 and one each in 1996 and ’95.

As a comparison to the past, 153 coal miners died in the U.S. in 1981.

As of Feb. 10 there have been 21 coal miners killed, including 16 in the three West Virginia accidents.

Larry West, 46, has only been hurt a couple of times during his 27-year career, and never seriously. He says there are a lot of other things more dangerous than working at the Elk Creek Mine.

“It’s more dangerous walking across the road than it is working in the mine,” he says.

Then he gives the profession in Colorado one of its most stern safety testimonials: “If my kids wanted to work here I would have no problem with that.”

Miners handle thousands of pounds of material daily. They work with and around heavy equipment, and often work on uneven slopes with areas filled with standing water, and all the time with a single narrow beam as their only light source.

In 2002, Oxbow Mining had more than 16 injuries per 200,000 man-hours worked. In 2005, the company cut that number dramatically to a little more than four.

Litwiller attributes the drop to more training and Elk Creek’s relatively flat slope. The mine worked in 2002 was much steeper.

Litwiller says most of the injuries come from handling material, slips and falls.

Besides the occasional smashed hand, broken finger and turned ankle, there are few serious accidents. A broken leg was the most serious injury of 2005, Litwiller says.

Love suffered a broken ankle a few years back but was quick to accept blame. “It was my fault; I wasn’t being careful.”

Jens Lange, 43, has been mining since 1980, including stints in Alabama, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Australia and Germany. He had other plans at first but turned to coal mining and hasn’t courted any regrets since.

“I wanted to go to law school. By the time pre-law was over I didn’t really want to go to school anymore,” he says with a modest grin.

When miners click on the head lamp, it’s time to get serious, he says.

“When you’re underground all you worry about is your job. I like the camaraderie with your fellow workers, but it’s all business and it has to be. The job is intense, and it’s always going to be that way.”

Lonny Stroud agrees, and says it’s up to each miner to be careful and get the job done.

“A mine is only as safe as the people make it, and this is a safe mine,” says Stroud, who’s a crew foreman and has never missed a day of work due to injury since he started mining in 1992.

Working in the dark is unique.

“If you don’t like being in the dark and you don’t like going underground, then this isn’t the job for you,” Jason Robirds says with a bit of a chuckle.

The 35-year-old, eight-year coal-mining veteran says teamwork is essential to being an underground miner.

“You have to get the job done and to stay safe you have to have a team, and everyone has to be responsible and know what’s going on around them,” he says.

Joe Farinelli, 47, echoes the team concept. “You can’t mine 25,000 tons of coal by yourself. Everyone has to carry their own weight and you always have to keep your eyes open.”

A coal-mining veteran of 26 years, Farinelli compares the working relationships in coal mines to those he encountered in the military.

“Having spent some time in the military, there’s a camaraderie here that you can only find with a platoon of guys. It’s something that you can’t find at a lot of other jobs.”

Teamwork, camaraderie and brotherhood are all important to a coal miner. The Sago accident hit hard and close to home, but it’s doubtful that anyone at Elk Creek had thoughts of switching professions.

“My heart goes out to those families of the (West Virginia) miners, but we have a job to do. This is my job, just like everyone else, I have to go to work,” Stroud says.

When Litwiller heard about the Sago explosion he expected the worst.

“My first thought was that if any of those people survived I’d be surprised. Typically those things are never good,” he said.

He also knows from experience. Litwiller worked for Mid-Continent when the 1981 explosion ripped through the Dutch Creek mine. One of the 15 miners killed that day was his younger brother Danny Litwiller.

Randy Litwiller, who’s been in the profession since 1976 when he started with Mid-Continent, says coal miners are “the salt of the Earth.”

“These are down-to-earth, straight-forward, honest people with good work ethics,” he says. “They have a real close relationship with the people they work with, and they have to. They know that the people they work with have a direct tie and responsibility for each other’s safety.”

Once underground, the job offers a variety of challenges, which Litwiller says is another extremely unique aspect of the profession.

“Coal miners have to be the eternal optimists because things can change in a mine so fast. You have to have the attitude that you can get through anything and handle any problem. If you don’t have that view then you really should give it up because you’re going to face adversity in a mine.”

For the 300 miners at Elk Creek, they accept the dangers and relish the pride and satisfaction of the job. It’s a brotherhood filled with camaraderie and responsibility.

“It’s not a bad place to work, and it’s not a bad profession at all,” Love says with a smile.

It’s a job that is difficult, dirty, dangerous and sometimes deadly, but the appeal is the same as it’s been for decades.

For the veteran miners, good pay may have lured them underground, but it’s the challenge and uniqueness of the profession that is the source of their pride.

Whether it’s the pay, the camaraderie or the challenges of working underground, one thing’s for certain ” coal mining isn’t for everyone, and it’s definitely not for sissies.

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