The state of coal: UK mining engineer finds himself at odds with much of campus
By Brad Luttrell
Coal runs through Nate Waters’ blood.
It killed his grandfather and provides power for the lights in the classrooms where he takes his final classes to become a mining engineer. It hides beneath the earth in his hometown, and it paid for his new truck. Despite going to the flagship university of the state that is the third-leading producer of coal in the country, Waters finds himself among a minority, where there are students protesting coal and faculty with national reputations for fighting against mountaintop removal. He calls himself an environmentalist, while others have called him a “friend of death.”
Because at UK, he is not a mining engineering student or an environmentalist; Nate Waters is a coal miner.
A boom echoes through the mountains as sandstone and rock fly into the air, showering down like a Las Vegas fountain. But for this show, there’s no crowd of tourists. Five or six men watch from a distance as the sediment falls, and a massive mound of earth is gone.
Just before the explosion, the same men were packing holes with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, a powerful commercial explosive. After fusing the explosives together, they leave the strip mine site, and then, boom.
Part of a mountain is dead.
When the dust finally clears in the coal state of Kentucky, it may seem there are only two sides — those who want to save the mountains and those who blow them up.
But then, there is Nate Waters.
Waters has been a superlative mining engineering student on campus for five years. He is the president of UK’s chapter of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, which recently won a national award of excellence. When many professors in the department are asked who their standout student is, Nate Waters is almost always mentioned. He has had multiple internships, one in Wyoming, the highest coal-yielding state in the country, and even paid for his own truck with money he earned from working in coal.
Waters talks about coal mining — and reclaiming mine land — almost nonstop. He has three generations of coal miners in his family name, and it is the reason why he wants to go into the business. But it’s not enough to have a coal seam for a bloodline.
This excelling mining student wanted to be a part of Greenthumb, UK’s environmental education club.
But he never joined.
Waters was concerned about how well a mountaintop remover would fit in with the same people who traveled 16 hours to Washington, D.C. for a climate action conference, in which they shut down a coal-powered plant by protesting in the streets.
Greenthumb co-organizer Scott Beckmeyer, who two months ago shook his fist in protest in Washington, said it is not environmentalists versus coal miners, but a group advocating for change in how the coal companies operate.
“I would be so excited to have someone invested in coal in Greenthumb,” Beckmeyer said. “Because instead of making this a black-and-white issue and having people take sides, I think it’s important that we get the perspective of the people we’re fighting for, which is that community and those from Appalachia. It can only be a winning situation.”
Erik Reece, who teaches English at UK and is a dynamic anti-coal activist, isn’t so sure about the feasibility of such a discussion. In his experience, he said it always ends with he and coal advocates calling each other liars.
“A lot of times it’s going to turn into a shouting match,” Reece said. “I’ve never been in a situation in which it was successful. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t try.”
‘Closer to home’
“A friend of coal is a friend of death,” a woman told Nate Waters at a mountaintop removal discussion in Louisville. She saw the “Friends of Coal” logo on his shirt and took it as an opportunity to express her opinion of him and his livelihood.
Waters, who is naturally soft-spoken, is very careful of what he says and how he presents himself, knowing he represents coal. Waters laughed the insult off, and as friendly as he could, asked the woman what she meant. She told Waters that mountaintop removal destroys streams. It’s the same assertion that says those ruined streams also ruin lives that Waters has heard before. Waters began to tell the woman about the improvements of reclamation, but she wasn’t interested in listening.
Waters never lets it get personal, but he could.
“I’ve chosen to go into this because it’s closer to home,” Waters said. “It’s in my blood, really.”
His great-grandfather and great-uncle worked in coal and died underground with it, too. His fiancée’s family has similar history underground.
It seems if anyone should understand the dark side of coal, it would be Waters. He would be a true fourth-generation coal miner if his father had been able to get a job in the mines.
“I was at a good age. I could have worked in the mines,” Nate Water’s father, Guy Waters, said. “But there were just so many people trying to get work for the mines you couldn’t get a job.”
The only job Guy Waters could get in Stearns, Ky., was working for a lumber company that cut timbers used in the mines, earning a fifth of a coal miner’s pay. The miners would hammer the timbers between the floor and the roof of the mine, doing the same job that killed Nate Waters’ grandfather when a post cracked the lower shell of the ceiling. The rock collapsed and killed him instantly, ending a 30-plus year career in the mines and leaving behind his family.
Modern mines do not use timbers as primary roof support, one of many safety upgrades since Nate Waters’ grandfather was killed.
“To see the advancements in (safety) is really rewarding to me,” Nate Waters said. “To know that some of the accidents that happened in the past are not going to happen today.”
Guy Waters is proud that his son was able to get a job in coal, even if it means moving away from him.
“Can’t you find anywhere close to work? You telling me ICG can’t mine over here? You all just need to head west,” Guy Waters jokingly said.
While Guy Waters is more vocal, both wish Nate Waters could live closer to home.
Not because the elder Waters is scared of his son’s safety. Guy Waters, a firm supporter of mining, takes comfort in the improvements mines have made since his father was killed.
Even though mine safety has improved, Reece said updating safety measures has brought on other problems.
When companies mostly mined underground, there were fewer environmental consequences, Reece said. With strip mining, fewer people are employed but there are more valley fills and more damage done to ecosystems.
Neither coal miners nor environmentalists seem to have a problem with admitting the repulsiveness of the early stages of strip mining.
“If we left the land like that, there’s no way I would want to be a part of that,” Nate Waters said while driving past a blasted, bare mountainside.
“Surface mining in its active phase is ugly,” said Don Gibson, International Coal Group’s director, permitting and regulatory affairs. “But no one cares to tell the story of reclamation.”
Reece, who wrote a book about strip mining’s effects on the environment, doesn’t believe what is lost can ever be replaced.
“You’ve destroyed an entire ecosystem when you blow up a mountain,” Reece said. “It will never be a wildlife habitat again. It will never be a mountain again.”
But Nate Waters and Gibson believe reclaimed mine sites will one day be good real estate, as seen in Hazard, Ky., where much of the city is on reclaimed land. A reclamation site is your best chance to see an elk or a Bobwhite quail in Eastern Kentucky, Nate Waters said.
Being a mining engineer doesn’t qualify him to be a destructor of the environment, Nate Waters said.
Reece believes it’s too late, even with the elk, for Perry County, one of the most mined counties in Eastern Kentucky.
“To look at the damage to the mountains and the streams in Perry County, then to say, ‘Look, we have elk,’ is like going through a divorce and getting to keep the silverware. It’s crazy,” Reece said.
But it goes beyond the wildlife in Hazard. Many of the city’s main buildings are on reclaimed strip mine sites. Waters said the airport and hospital are both examples, and the town’s economy is “booming” because of coal.
After graduation, Waters will be starting as a full-time mining engineer with Gibson’s company in Hazard, where it’s unlikely he will be among a minority.
Reece said the people of Hazard are used to the affects of coal mining.
“After long enough you can get used to anything,” Reece said.
‘It’s too abundant’
Scott Beckmeyer stands on a narrow Washington, D.C., street with 5,000 other people, cranking his fist in the air and chanting. Standing at the front door of one of the street-side homes is a mother. Her young son walks up to the doorway.
The crowd, young and old alike, begins to chant, “This is for you,” to her child. She applauds them as they march by.
A little over an hour later, the mass has split up to block all the gates to a coal-powered plant that heats the Capitol Building. In anticipation of the protest, the plant had hundreds of police officers on guard and only required a minimum amount of employees come to work for the day.
Using the same tactics as Martin Luther King, Jr., Reece said the group wanted to create attention and force negotiation.
“That’s what we were trying to do, is force a change,” Reece said a few months after the protest.
“If I were Don Gibson that would scare me more than anything, with so many young people involved,” Reece said. “It was people of our parents’ generation that created this problem, and it’s people of your generation, and my generation, that are going to have to solve it.”
But coal company bigwig Don Gibson isn’t scared at all. He welcomes the effort.
“A lot of people say we need to use renewables. I don’t disagree with that,” Gibson said. “But until we have the technology, we can’t quit coal mining today, with over half the electrical needs coming from coal, until something else comes along.”
The Energy Information Administration expects coal consumption, and overall energy use, to increase after the economy begins to recover. Right now, coal is providing the U.S. with half its energy needs.
“We’re going to have to have all different types of energy to meet that demand,” Nate Waters said.
Nate Waters believes it will take wind, solar and nuclear power to meet the demand, but only after those alternatives become cheaper with improving technology. But for now, the face of Kentucky energy will remain covered with coal dust.
“It’s too abundant,” Nate Waters said. “We’re one of the wealthiest coal states in the nation.”
Third-wealthiest actually, just behind West Virginia and nowhere near Wyoming’s colossal annual production of 445 million short tons — each short ton being 2,000 pounds.
The most recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor reported in one year, 417 mines across Kentucky recovered 46 million short tons of coal from strip mines and 115 million short tons from all mines. That is 230 billion pounds, and around 2.5 million legal coal truck loads, which would wrap around the equator.
Reece believes Kentucky is ready to move around coal right now. His vision is a Kentucky where people work toward all different types of energies. There would be no black lung, more mountains and more jobs, all coming from clean energy.
When asked how long until Kentucky is realistically off coal, and ultimately closer to such a goal, Reece turns his head down and laughs.
“You don’t really want to be realistic or you get too depressed,” he said. “You want to be visionary.”
Realistically, the U.S. is home to the largest coal reserves in the world, enough to last 225 years, according to the Energy Information Administration.
With the black rock being so cheap and abundant, it’s unclear when Reece’s dreamland of renewable energy will ever come to be. But it may be closer to home than some may think. While Nate Waters believes it will take far too much money to switch Kentucky’s energy grid to be compatible with a new source of energy, he does know where they can start when the time comes.
One of the greatest places for wind turbines is on top of a strip mine, Nate Waters said.
Kentucky certainly has an abundance of those.
As Nate Waters and Don Gibson drive over a reclaimed mine site, tall, brittle grass blows in the wind, still dead from a cold winter. In the distance there are a few homes, and a coal truck, taking a load off from another mine. But it’s mostly miles of grass.
Years ago, this land looked just like the muddy, blasted hill Nate Waters said he would never want to be a part of. About a quarter-mile away, you can see trees lined up like a fence all along the grassland where the mining permit ended. This earth has been stripped of all its coal.
“My religion, my faith tells me that God gave me these resources and gave me dominion over them,” Nate Waters said.
Other people’s beliefs tell them otherwise, like Reece, who has called some coal supporters liars, and the stranger in Louisville who called Nate Waters a “friend of death.” There are people like Beckmeyer, who believe coal was necessary in the past, but want to further the discussion of change. But Waters, despite the accusations and name calling, sticks to his beliefs — our lives are dependent upon mining.
“Makeup contains Talc, which has to be mined. So if any girls are against mining they need to stop using makeup,” he said with a witty smile. “Your toothpaste has minerals in it. Our lives are constantly affected by minerals. It’s not just coal.”
But in Kentucky, it seems it is.