Coal: Fond memories and nightmares of ‘black diamond’

As a coal cracker from Mt. Carmel, Pa., I’ve always had a kind of love-hate relationship with coal. During my youngest years, I had to be more than grateful for the jobs coal mining provided.

After coming from Italy, my immigrant father put a roof over our heads and food on the table by working in the mines. That was our admission ticket to our dream home with an outhouse, an icebox and a coal-fired kitchen stove.

The soot-faced miners who exited the dark coal shafts after braving dangers of all kinds deep below the surface of the earth were my childhood heroes. They knew something about almost everything: explosives, plumbing, electricity, carpentry, you name it. We depended on their varied skills and stoic bravery for our very livelihoods. As kids I fondly remember mindlessly jumping slow moving freight trains to skinny dip in “bottomless” abandoned coal mine holes like the “Sandy.” What would we have done without the miners…and the mines?

Then one day in 1946 when I was seven, our family was struck by tragedy. That morning, through some strange intuition of impending danger, my Mom begged my Dad not to go to work. Despite her pleading, he set out for the mine anyway. In the afternoon, there was a knock at the door. It was a miner covered in soot who obviously hadn’t yet made his regular after-shift” beer garden” stop. He told my Mom what she already knew: my Dad had been hurt… buried, as it turned out, by a mine cave-in at one of the unregulated mines where he worked that day.

My dad fought for his life for eight months in the Ashland Hospital.

On the day of my First Communion, with the same tactfulness my friends tell me I have never lost, I visited him and said: “Hey, Pop, they’re sayin’ you’re gonna die. Is that true?” Eventually, he left the hospital … permanently disabled and without employer or government disability benefits. He got $10 a month from the union for two years.

My grandfather always used to boast about his love my dad by saying: “When he finished eighth grade, I took him with me to the mines.”

My father on the other hand used to tell me over and over again: “I would rather see you dead at my feet than to ever see you step one foot in the mines.”

My resourceful mother, who passed away two years ago at 105, and was more strong willed than a mine mule, worked every day in a panty factory, evenings at Nicoletti’s Restaurant and weekends catering weddings or cleaning houses. She supported her disabled husband and raised three kids all by herself with her father and mother in law living in our home. I spent years sleeping above my grandfather who coughed all night long.

He suffered badly from Black Lung Disease. Gradually, my romantic notions about coal mining receded from memory, even if my admiration for the miners never did.

To this day, I still have mixed feelings about coal, no longer because of personal reasons, but for economic and environmental ones. While coal benefits our economy, it simultaneously pollutes our air, our water and aquatic life and is the main contributing source of damage to the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.

On the one hand, there is a lot to like about coal. It made possible the industrial revolution and all the wondrous advancements that flowed from it. The coal industry employs a lot of people. There is a “ton of it” in the ground. A lot of that buried treasure is here in the United States. Coal is cheap. And coal in the ground could last for a long time.

There are about 80,000 to 100,000 coal miners in the United States, oddly just about as many miners as have been killed in mining accidents over the last century. The industry contributes directly or indirectly to 6.8 million jobs and accounts for $362 billion in household income. Though down from 53 percent in 1997, coal still provides 36 percent of the electricity generated in the United States and for 40 percent-50 percent throughout the world. These are just some of the economic reasons why it is so hard for us to even imagine going “coal turkey.”

But coal is more than plentiful and cheap. It is much more expensive and damaging to the environment than gas. It is also dirty … very dirty. As a group of concerned scientists have said: “Coal is as cheap as dirt, as plentiful as dirt, and as dirty as dirt — since after all, coal is little more than dirt that burns.”

Studies disputed only by the coal industry have found that: “coal causes chronic bronchitis, asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer, when microscopically small particles are inhaled, entering the lungs and thus the bloodstream; “Coal plants pollute our water, our air, our wildlife, produces acid rain; coal emissions are largely responsible for the high concentrations of mercury in the fish we eat; coal is the biggest known contributor of C02 to the atmosphere and therefore is the single largest cause of a potentially catastrophic effects of man-exacerbated climate change.

So-called clean coal technologies are not the answer to all these problems. Clean coal technologies are expensive, reduce the adverse effects of emissions to only a relatively small degree and leave us with the problem of what to do with the dirty stuff once we have captured it.

Bill McKibben is called the “purveyor of fear” by the fossil fuel industry. Respected outside the industry the best long-time environmental author, McKibben has reported on the scientific evidence which holds that the world can sustain a two centigrade increase in temperature without bringing on a global catastrophe. The amount of reserves which fossil fuel companies now have in reserve is five times more than is necessary to launch us over that threshold … and these companies intend to burn it all. A gigantic part of that reserve the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, coal.

In a 2012 speech, CEO of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce Thomas Donahue said we have to use more and more fossil fuels: “We have 1.4 trillion barrels of oil, enough to last at least 200 years. We have 2.7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to last 120 years. We have 486 billion tons of coal, enough to last more than 450 years – and we need to use more of this strategic resource cleanly and wisely here at home while selling it around the world.”

We already have too much C02 in the atmosphere.

Many climatologists believe the safe threshold is 350 ppm (parts per million). We are already at 400 ppm. Donohue’s proposal would raise it 50 percent to 650 ppm. And his speech got a standing ovation.

In the meantime, President Trump pursues pro-coal and other fossil fuel and anti-green energy policies with a vengeance as China becomes the world largest producer and exporter of renewable energy technology. All of his appointments indicate that the fossil fuel industry will control government policy for as long as he is President.

As a kid, I never even thought of actually weighing the pros and cons of coal mining. But now after more than a half century, as I go beyond my childhood experience and consider he benefits and destructiveness of coal on a global scale, I feel more comfortable in forming an opinion on the subject.

My opinion: Coal and other fossil fuels will eventually do us all in, kinda like the way the mine accident did my Dad in … slowly, painfully, but surely.

It pains me to say it, but the truth is, the coal-fired train has already left the station … and we are all on board.

Tim Mannello is a Williamsport-based, former hospital executive and business consultant.