Colorado coal mining sits at a crossroads. Skyrocketing demand and potential environmental regulations may force coal insiders to make difficult decisions about the industry’s future—and the fate of the 2,200 Coloradans who venture deep into the earth to mine the black gold.
Coal mining runs in Pagone’s veins just as it does for most miners—they do it because their daddy did it, and their granddaddy did it too. “Miners live their lives in a mythological world—something out of Dante,” says Jeff Goodell, who spent hundreds of hours with miners while researching for his book Big Coal. “And not only does it breed a kinship among current miners, it bonds all of them back through generations.” Coal mining is a brotherhood, the ultimate locker room. But most of this underground locker room doesn’t resemble the slick space of Pagone’s belt room. Although mining has gotten significantly safer and more sophisticated, digging coal still means putting human beings into a labyrinth of darkness miles under the earth’s crust.
Heading back to the truck, we leave the relative calm of the belt room and step into one of the larger main tunnels of the mine. Our headlamps illuminate only a few square feet at a time. It’s dark, damp, and cool; undulating, rocky coal floors rest beneath our feet. What looks like heavy chicken wire supports the walls and ceilings. A thick icing of white limestone dust covers every surface, stemming the spread of dangerously combustible coal dust. Every few hundred feet there is evidence of falling rock or a minor roof collapse. Ropes run along every wall with miniature plastic cones attached to them, a trail-of-breadcrumbs method of showing miners the way out after a catastrophic cave-in or explosion. I look at Pagone, grimacing at the thought. He says nothing about the rope but warns me to get the light out of his eyes when my headlamp momentarily obscures his vision. Rookie mistake.
As we drive deeper, toward where coal is actively being mined, Pagone explains everything from the mine’s ventilation system to how management keeps track of each worker inside. He tells me about the other guys, giving nicknames—Chewy, Barnyard, and Cherry—and telling me what each miner does. I’m listening, but I’m also acutely aware of how long we’ve been in the car. We drive for miles. The farther in, the more the dirt and rock and coal builds above our heads—nearly 2,500 feet of it in places. But as we get closer to the action, bright lights from the roaring mining equipment catch my eye, momentarily distracting me from the rising panic.
Unlike in the coal mining days of my grandfather and great-grandfather, there are no pick axes. Mining, and more specifically mining equipment, has evolved. Today, heavy machinery does the grunt work. The “continuous miner” is one of the big guns. A $1.8 million piece of machinery run by remote control, it’s a wide, flat contraption with a massive steamroller that’s attached at the front. The roller sports nasty claws that cut through walls of coal like a cat goes after a scratching post. As the miner gnashes away, bellowing cracks rise above the growl of the machines. “It’s just the earth settling,” says Pagone with a shrug and a tiny grin that reveals his amusement at my anxiety. Even with his unaffected demeanor, the groans of an objecting Mother Nature are unnerving.
The mine doesn’t intimidate Pagone. Loaded down with a hard hat and lamp, a self-rescuer breathing device, a methane gas sensor, safety glasses, giant steel-toed boots, and a tool belt, he floats among the machinery, moving through the mine as if he knows its every crevice. He climbs atop the continuous miner and sifts through the shards of black. Handing me a softball-size slab, he asks, “Can you believe that you can light a home with just that piece of rock?” I can’t. In fact, it’s surprising that more than 70 percent of Colorado’s electricity—and more than 50 percent of the electricity in the United States—still comes from coal.