Still Working: What It Takes To Keep The Lights On In Western PA

Nov 27, 2015

A black and yellow helmet sits on the floor of Janet Hoover’s kitchen. It’s perched on top of a pair of boots and an old miner’s lamp. The helmet label reads, “Fasloc: Keeps the Roof Over Your Head.” 

When Hoover was young, she’d say goodbye to her dad as he went to work at the coal mine and wonder if she’d see him again. She didn’t want that same worry as an adult. 

“I promised myself at a young age I’d never marry a coal miner. Because that fear was constantly hanging over you and—darn, I fell in love with a coal miner,” she said.  

Frank Hoover grew up in rural Munster Township, while Janet was raised in Colver, a village of just over a thousand people about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh. Colver is smack dab in the sixth most productive coal region in the United States.

Janet’s mother Genie Semko said in Colver, working in coal wasn’t really a choice.

“There was no other industry, you had to go to the mines. So the father took the son in and that’s the way the generation kept going. They knew nothing but mining because they didn’t have a car to go anywhere, they didn’t have money then,” she said.  

Though Semko has lived in Colver all her life, she’s never made peace with the mines. In her living room, she turned to a two-foot statue of Jesus, beaming down on her from a side table in the far corner.

“It protects me,” she said.

For the twenty years her husband worked underground, Semko did her best to protect him. Every time he left for work, she made the sign of the cross over him three times.

“It was my feeling of safety. It was to bring him back, to don’t let anything happen. He never left this house without that,” she said.  

Built in 1911, Colver epitomized the company town: Coleman & Weaver Company built the houses, the theater, the firehouse. It even built the town’s name: the partners’ names combined—B. Dawson Coleman and John Heisley Weaver formed COL-VER. Coal was king those first few decades of the twentieth century, and the miners its tired subjects, said Hoover.

“Keep pushing, keep pushing, get the production levels up. The miner was just, he was replaceable,” she said.

When Frank began working in the Colver Mine in the mid-1970s, his surroundings likely made him feel expendable: timbers were still being used to hold up the roof. Men weren’t paid by the hour, but by how much coal they could pull out of the mine. Enforcement of safety regulations still had a long way to go.

But by then, the United States’ production of coal had subsided to a steady 85 to 90 million tons a year nationwide, down from the country’s best year in 1918. In the midst of World War I, 270 million tons were mined nationwide. But coal has always been boom and bust. By the 1980s, fewer and fewer people bore the risk of producing the country’s energy. Then in 1993 a glut market, deindustrialization and strip mining devastated Colver and the entire industry.

Coal mining continues to be big business in Pennsylvania. But there have been some significant changes, said Craig Carson, Acting Bureau Director for Pennsylvania Mine Safety.

“You’re hard-pressed to find a shovel in a coal mine these days,” he said.

Most everything is computerized. Men and women still work the machines underground but their progress and safety can be monitored from aboveground. There are better communication systems, better tracking systems, all with the goal of better protecting miners, said Jeff Stanchik, emergency response manager for Pennsylvania Mine Safety.

“From June of 2009 to February of this year [2015] Pennsylvania, in all of our mines…we’ve had zero fatalities over that five-year period,” he said. “That is one of the purposes of the Bureau of Mine Safety, is to ensure the safety of the miner which we consider our most valuable resource.”

It’s a dwindling resource, said Carson. There are far fewer miners today than there were in 1940 or 1950.

“In 1940, 111 tons [were] mined by 117,000 miners. They had 188 fatalities that year. Last year, there was about 50 million tons mined in the Commonwealth and that was done with approximately 4,500 miners,” he said.  

Josh Beltwoski sits with his wife, Whitney, at their kitchen table. He tried to describe what a mine looks like. 

“It’s like a city down there. There’s roads, going this way, that way, sometimes we got drives lit up. Sometimes you come up over the hill and it’s just glowing, you know? I, I, don’t know the right word for it. It’s hard for me to talk about it because I hate the fact I can’t show you what I’m seeing in my head,” he said.  

Beltowski’s mining career is over. He’s 27. To him, the mines aren’t a place of fear or anger or pain, but home. He knows what 400 feet of earth sounds like settling in above his head; how to keep himself and his buddies safe; how to extract a cut of coal while bent over at the knees in 36 inches of headroom, up to his bellybutton in water.

“People just walk into the house and flip a switch and grab a cold beer and turn the TV on. Without a clue, you know. There’s a lot of good guys and hard work that made that possible. I think we do a damn good job,” he said.  

Beltowski wanted to start mining right out of high school, but his parents wanted him to go to college. He finally went underground in 2008, the way he wanted to all along. For seven years he mined the coal that fuels more than a third of Pennsylvania’s electricity. 

“If I had one wish—I’d have to think about if I really want to use this wish,” he laughed. “But if I had a couple wishes one would definitely be so that everybody could just go down for an hour and experience it,” he said.  

The market for coal has contracted again, and Beltowski left a couple weeks ago, before layoffs started in earnest. He says he’s a little bit angry that he had to leave.

“I miss it. I miss it probably every day.”

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