Coal Coming Back in Some Alabama Communities

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, WBHM 90.3 FM

Ben Sivley, a mining instructor at Bevill State Community College, teaches future miners.

Coal mines are coming back in some parts of Alabama. Industry observers say easing of regulations and a steady demand for coal overseas means more mining jobs.  That’s welcome news in places like Brookwood in Tuscaloosa County, where coal is mined to produce steel.

On a recent morning at Bevill State Community College in Sumiton, 14 men were learning the skills needed for some of those coal jobs. When they finish this four-week class, they’re promised a position at Warrior Met, the state’s largest coal producer.

They chiseled, taped and scraped walls inside the darkness of a simulated coal mine on a recent afternoon. Their task in this class was to build air vents, just as they would in an underground coal mine.

They wore green hard hats with lights attached on front.

James Knight, 54 of Hueytown, says he’s ready to go back to work. He had  a good job at US Steel until he was laid off two years ago.

“US Steel shut down and put me out. So, I’ve got to do something,” he says. “I’ve got to feed my family.”

Knight says he has a family of three — five if you count the dogs.

Companies like Warrior Met Coal need workers like Knight because of higher international demand for steel.

Kelli Gant, the mining company’s chief administrative officer, says the company has been doing a lot of hiring over the past two years.

“We’re just continuing to replenish our workforce and growing our own coal miners,” she says. “That’s because the experienced labor pool in the area has diminished.”

Warrior Met acquired another coal company when it went bankrupt a couple of years ago. It started with 500 miners. Since then, Warrior Met has almost tripled its workforce.

Gant says coal mining is making a stronger comeback in Alabama than in places like West Virginia and Kentucky. That’s because Alabama has the Port of Mobile, which means lowers shipping costs for coal exported around the world.

The state is also experiencing a resurgence in steam coal production, used to generate power, says Patrick Cagle of the Alabama Coal Association. He says some of that can be traced to the Trump administration easing regulation of coal-fired power plants. Alabama is projected to produce about 14 million tons of coal this year, Cagle says.

“We’ve got new people coming and taking up existing leases and buying some of those companies,” Cagle says. “At the same time, some of those companies that decided to leave around 2014, they’re starting to regain confidence,” he says.

Some are spending on new equipment. Mine operators at a mine in west Jefferson County recently bought a big orange excavator that they named “Trump.”

Investments in mining operations will pay off, Cagle says, not just for the companies but for the communities they’re in.

At Henry’s Burgers and Cream in Brookwood, restaurant co-owner Alix Hatter, sees that first-hand.

Sometimes in the mornings, miners drop in after working the night shift.  But they don’t always want breakfast. So Hatter will make dinner in the mornings.

“Yes, ma’am we make lots of hamburgers in the morning time for our miners that are getting off work,” she says. “We make them hamburgers just like they want, no problem.”

For the miners on their way to work, there’s another special service Hatter provides. They can only take whatever food they can squeeze into a basic lunch box. So instead of styrofoam containers, she wraps their sandwiches tightly in aluminum foil.

The restaurant has been in her husband Brian’s family for years. They run it together. Their children have grown up with many children whose parents work in the mines, she says.

Hatter grew up nearby in Cottondale and says coal mining communities enjoy a close bond.

“I grew up as a coal miner’s daughter, so it’s very important to me on a personal level that we take care of our miners,” she says. “I feel like I’m giving back to my dad you know each time that I take care of one of these miners.”

People training for these jobs say they are banking on a good salary, benefits and a long future in mining. Warrior Met says the average salary for a miner there is about $85,000 a year.