IN THE BLACK
The price of coal is soaring. Demand is up. No one could be happier than Greene County's miners, who dig the steady work and fat paychecks.
WAYNESBURG, Pa. - All night and day, trains rumble through the hills and valleys of Greene County, where coal is king and the rails carry away the crown jewels, 42 million tons of black bituminous a year, now fetching double its price of just two years ago.
Waitress Tonya Woodring, 38, pours coffee at Lavern's Place, a breakfast spot for miners coming off the overnight shift.
Taking a break, she lights a cigarette and lists her family's "toys" - all purchased with the $80,000 a year her husband makes working a mandatory six 10-hour days a week in a job that bears little resemblance to the pickax mining of the past.
"There's a truck," Woodring says, then pauses. "Well, two trucks, the four-wheeler, a boat - and we're looking for a new home."
No other county in Pennsylvania produces more coal than Greene, population 39,808, about an hour's drive southwest of Pittsburgh. And few places feel coal's impact like this county, where growing numbers of people thrive on the commodity while the rest struggle in its shadow.
It's a peaceful place where folks talk in a drawl, cows meander through pastures, and posters on store windows advertise a future appearance by a troupe of brawny strongmen testifying to the power of Jesus.
Tranquil on the surface, rural Greene County is roiled by global economic forces: factories in China, floods in Australia, the rise of the euro, the fall of the dollar, stunning and disturbing developments in mining technology, discoveries of huge natural-gas reserves, the aging of American baby boomers, and, most important, the skyrocketing price of coal - now about $105 a ton on the spot market.
Gary R. Bowers, president of Producers Supply Co., provides the micro.
"Coal has been our livelihood forever," said Bowers, 38. His father and a grandfather were miners, and now his business in the county seat of Waynesburg supplies mines with everything from pipe valves to black tape.
In 1990, Bowers, who never went to college, got a $6.25-an-hour job behind the counter, the only employee. Three years later, he bought out the owner. Now he employs 18. "We're good," he said, smiling and leaning back in his chair. "We're very good."
Except for those who aren't.
"We have a dichotomy of economies," said Barbara L. Cole, administrator of the state's workforce program, CareerLink, in Greene County.
One-fifth of the county's labor pool of nearly 12,000 work in mining, earning $74,206 on average, more than miners elsewhere and Pennsylvania workers in general.
The rest of the county's labor force works mostly in retail, health care and local government, earning less than $32,000 a year, according to the latest state statistics.
"All the other jobs are just minimum wage," said Woodring, at Lavern's, where hungry miners can dig into a scrambled mountain of eggs, potatoes and sausage known as a garbage plate.
No wonder Bituminous Billy, a miner, is the county mascot. The sheer scale of coal mining is mind-boggling.
Nowhere is it more evident than from a hilltop vantage point in the middle of Consol Energy Inc.'s coal-processing complex.
On one side tower four huge silos of coal, each holding an average of 25,000 tons and connected by a warren of conveyor belts that swoop and climb like roller-coasters from the mine to the silos and onto a processing plant capable of sorting 6,500 tons an hour.
Seven 105-car trains a day pull through the complex, each car stopping under a chute to receive 110 tons of coal.
Together, Consol's two Greene County mines, Bailey and Enlow Fork, produce 20 million tons of coal a year.
On the other side is an entire valley. Consol owns most of it. Massive earth-moving machines - each one eight times the size of an ordinary pickup truck - crawl across the landscape. In a year, the valley will be more than filled - mounded - with refuse rock drawn from the mines. Consol will plant grass on top.
Inside the mines, using a technique known as longwall mining, seven men can produce in one shift as much coal as a crew of eight to 10 could mine in two weeks in 1984, nearly a quarter-century ago, when Larry Grayson was a mining supervisor in Greene County.
"Technology has been changing considerably," said Grayson, now a professor of mineral engineering at Pennsylvania State University. "The machinery has gotten bigger and more powerful."
In six months, working round the clock, six days a week, the seven-man crews will remove a six-foot-thick layer of coal nearly a quarter-mile wide and more than two miles long.
Mining 400 to 1,000 feet underground, they'll use a shearer to slice back and forth across the 1,100-foot face of the coal as if it were a giant hunk of bologna, with the mine roof collapsing behind them as they go.
Aboveground, the land can settle in a process called subsidence. Sometimes there's no damage. Other times foundations fracture and wells crack, the water draining away. "Water buffalo" - the local term for replacement water tanks wrapped in white insulation - graze in backyards and side lots.
There are constant disputes between mining companies and property owners over subsidence damage.
While many disputes are resolved amicably, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has sued Consol, accusing the mining company of causing a crack in the dam that held back Ronald J. Duke Lake in Ryerson Station State Park.
"That's our lake - we can mow it now," said Holly Carpenter, a retired medical assistant from Greene County, as she walked on a little rise above the former lake, now a mix of grass and mud. "The mining companies are just running right over people."
Consol denies causing the damage. "We were more than 1,200 feet away from the area," spokesman Thomas Hoffman said.
Mining companies lift houses on blocks and move them to new locations. That's normal. Or they simply pay to build something new. The mines built a steepled sanctuary for South Wheeling Baptist Church in Greene County a hill or two away from its old location - now a youth building.
Sometimes mining companies buy up whole hamlets to avoid dickering with homeowners over damage.
"People take the money and run," said Cindy Bailey, editor and publisher of GreeneSpeak, a feisty monthly newspaper. Sometimes mining companies rent the houses. Sometimes the houses sit, boarded up, paint peeling.
It all concerns environmental groups such as the Center for Coalfield Justice in neighboring Washington County. "It's impacting the quality of the groundwater," said executive director Raina Rippel, who also pointed to larger issues of pollution and asthma-causing particulates in the air.
Coal companies acknowledge some problems, but say technology has made, and will make, tremendous strides in overcoming them.
In Greene County, even the dead are affected by coal.
Worried that their loved ones' coffins would crack as mining companies culled coal below the grave line, lot owners in a local cemetery sued the cemetery's board, saying it shouldn't have sold the mining rights.
"The way they described it, you thought it would be Poltergeist," said Mary Jane Kent, a school board member and county employee on the cemetery board. Ultimately, the mining company stepped in, buying the cemetery additional land and cushioning the tombstones with hay bales during the mining.
Half a world away from the cemetery, China's factories and power plants are voraciously consuming the world's coal - and the coal companies in Greene County notice.
So do investors. Coal stocks, as a group, have quadrupled in value in the last three years, a faster rise than energy stocks overall and even oil stocks, according to Bloomberg News indexes.
"Worldwide demand for coal continues to increase, driven primarily by burgeoning coal consumption in Asia," Foundation Coal Holdings Inc., which operates two mines in Greene County, wrote in its fourth-quarter report.
Foundation estimates that global coal consumption will grow 70 percent by 2030, with 75 percent of the demand coming from Asia.
The market is already tight. Flooding in Australia sidelined mines that would ordinarily supply Asia. There have been problems with production and transportation in South Africa, Indonesia, Colombia and Russia - coal sources for Europe and Asia.
And the declining value of the dollar against the euro makes U.S. coal a better deal for European coal buyers. "The euro buys a lot more coal," said Gene Pisasale, a senior energy and natural resources analyst at PNC Capital Advisers in Baltimore.
All that, in turn, means tighter supplies and rising prices at home for "the foreseeable future," Foundation's report said.
All the money flowing into coal has encouraged more mining investment in Greene County.
Foundation has filed permits to open two more mines in the next five years, adding more tonnage to the 15 million to 16 million tons its mines already produce in Greene County. Consol plans to expand its mines over, or rather under, the border into West Virginia.
These days - due to the increase in mining and gas drilling - skilled workers are in short supply.
John Howard, who owns the local Pontiac and GMC dealership, can't find a good service manager. "The coal mines are starting to take a lot of good people out of the job market," he complained. "The coal mines pay more than I can."
That's what makes the mines a good bet for the Wendell family and others like it. Rich Wendell, 55, started in the mines in 1974. His son, Chad, 28, works side by side with him at Foundation's Cumberland mine. Wendell's son-in-law is interviewing for a job there as well.
The mines are, for the first time in decades, on a hiring spree, pushed by the demand for coal and the pending retirement of a generation of miners like Rich Wendell, who wants to stop work next year.
Wendell started in the mines in the 1970s during another boom, when mines nationwide employed more than 220,000.
Then steel plants began to close, lessening the need for coal. Mines shut down, workers were laid off, and ever-improving technology cut labor demands. Any jobs that became available through attrition could easily be filled by experienced miners who had been laid off. Mine employment nationwide hit a low of 85,000 in 2003.
Now the trend is reversed. Employment climbed to nearly 99,900 in 2006, according to the latest data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"We've come full circle," Wendell said. "When I started, there were guys in their 50s and the young guys. There were no guys in their 30s and 40s.
"Now here I am, one of the old men in their 50s. We bypassed another two decades when they didn't hire anybody," he said. "The baby boomers are retiring, and their kids are coming in."
Wendell's union, the United Mine Workers of America, is working to remain relevant in this boom time despite the growing proportion of nonunion mines, including Consol's Bailey mine.
In Harrisburg, the union is lobbying for an improved mine-safety bill.
In Prosperity, Greene County, the union is building a 100,000-square-foot training mine with a $4.3 million grant from the state, Gov. Rendell announced in June.
And when Foundation opens its new mines in Greene County, Tony Brnusak wants them to be unionized like Foundation's current mines, Cumberland and Emerald.
"The two biggest bargaining chips we have are Emerald and Cumberland," said Brnusak, president of Local 2300 of the United Mine Workers of America. With the tight labor market, "we can put some pressure on them."
Foundation spokeswoman Samantha Davison would not comment on the union status of the new mines.
Sitting at his dining-room table, Rich Wendell weighed what the wealth below Greene County's rolling hills had meant to him and his family - both bad and good.
There was his back surgery, cut hands, six teeth nearly knocked out, a broken foot, and damaged lungs from fighting a mine fire last year. His son, Chad, was badly injured in the Bailey mine; a chain flew into his face, nearly blinding him and requiring five plates to repair his face.
Miners are more than six times as likely to die on the job as workers overall, according to 2005 statistics, the most recent from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Certainly, compared to 20 years ago or 40 years ago, mines are safer," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. "But we've seen a spike in fatalities and injuries over the last several years, and that's concerning to us."
The state Assembly is considering a bill that would toughen Pennsylvania's mining-safety law.
"It's hard work, and it's dangerous," Rich Wendell said.
And, like many Greene County families, the Wendells have been uprooted from their home as the mining companies extracted coal below.
In 2003, another mining company - not the Wendells' employer - bought the family home in Jacktown, the Greene County hamlet where Wendell had lived for 50 years.
The company paid a reasonable price. But, said Wendell, choking up a little, "it's been hard for me. I lived there for 50 years. I'd never been through a move. It was home."
Even so, he said, "the union mine has given me a good life" - all the material comforts, a brotherhood with his fellow union miners, and a legacy he can pass to his son.
Some of the evidence is in Rich Wendell's driveway - there's a new truck - and in the garage, where a lovingly polished Harley sits next to the Jaguar his wife, Gwen, drives.
Looking ahead, Wendell sees a bright future - at least for the next 25 to 30 years.
Chad Wendell nodded, looking at his parents, and across the table at his wife, Courtney, who is pregnant with their second child. His son, Christopher, 8, played nearby, waiting for a piece of ice cream cake.
"I hope it lasts so I can retire in it," Chad Wendell said, "and give my family a good life, just like my dad did."
A video, a slide show, an interactive graphic, an account of a trip into the earth's belly and more are at http://go.philly.com/mining