Sorry, Donald, Coal Ain’t Comin’ Back

One of Donald Trump’s promises to coal-producing states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, is that he will implement “clean coal” technology that will meet the energy need of the United States for the next 1,000 years. Sorry, Donald, that ain’t gonna’ happen.

First, there is no practical clean coal technology. It exists only on paper. Not only does practical clean coal technology not exist, it appears that it never will. If it were developed, it would be far more expensive than other, cleaner energy technologies.

I understand that there are many people in the coal-producing regions of the Appalachian Mountains who once had good-paying jobs that only required a high school education if that. Most of those jobs are gone, and there is nothing to replace them. When Donald Trump promises to bring those jobs back, I can understand why former coal miners want to believe him. They want to believe him, but they should not.

I grew up in coal country, and there were coal miners on both sides of my family. I am from South Fork, Pennsylvania, a small coal town tucked into a western valley of the Appalachian mountains. I grew up just outside South Fork in a hamlet informally named Flenner’s Grove and spent my teen years in the nearby industrial city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. My father, John Quinn, was a coal miner and railroad worker who died at the relatively young age of 62 as a result of silicosis and black lung disease contracted by breathing the air in the mines. His Camel cigarette habit added to his health problems.

I never met my paternal grandfather, Patrick Quinn, who left South Fork, his wife, and his children to run off to Washington State with another woman. He died in a Seattle hospital from injuries he suffered in a mine cave in before I was born. After he left his family, my father and my uncle Patrick were forced to quit school and become child laborers in a coal mine to support the family. My father had just finished sixth grade when he became a miner.

On my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather, John Wesley Roberts, was a coal miner in England. He and his oldest son, Ewart Roberts, come to the United States and worked in the coal mines near Johnstown to earn enough money to bring over the rest of the family including my mother. They were smart enough to get out of the mines and go to work for Bethlehem Steel, so they did not meet the same fate as my father.

When I was a kid, I believed that snow consisted of black and white layers, because the snow in Southwestern Pennsylvania was black and white. I realize now that after a snowstorm, a layer of black soot from the mining and burning of coal would settle on the snow. Subsequent snowfalls were in turn covered by the black soot so that cutting into a snowbank produced a cross-section that looked a bit like tree rings with alternating black and white layers. Freshly fallen snow was white. Snow that had been on the ground a few days was black.

I’m glad that coal mining is disappearing. Coal mining, along with Camel cigarettes, killed my father. Many male neighbors died young from mine accidents or lung disease from breathing the poisonous air in the mines. Even people who did not work in the mines inhaled soot with every breath, because the air was full of it. No one knows how many of them died prematurely from breathing the byproducts of the coal industry.

My maternal grandfather and uncles were not the only people to escape the mines. A famous escapee was Charles Dennis Buchinsky, who lived just blocks from my father when they were young and who worked in the mines with my father when they were men. At the outbreak of World War II, my father was too old to be drafted, but Charles Buchinsky went off to war and saw the world. When he returned to South Fork, he was no longer content to work the mines. He moved to New York and attended acting school. Later he starred in many Hollywood movies. Maybe you have seen him on the screen. His acting name was Charles Bronson. He was a lucky one who lived into his 80s, probably 20 years longer than he would have lived had he stayed in the mines. Many of his family members rest eternally next to my family members in Saint James Cemetery just outside of South Fork.

No one knows how many millions of people suffered an early death mining, transporting, and burning coal or by breathing coal’s airborne waste products, but coal has undoubtedly killed an enormous number of people. No, Donald, coal is not coming back, and that is a good thing. Even if there were a clean way to burn it, it would continue to kill the men and some women who mine it.

Coal is on its way out, and good riddance!