Selling T-shirts, lies, anger to miners left without jobs, hope

Gary Bentley stood outside the mine where he worked before being laid off in 2012.
Gary Bentley stood outside the mine where he worked before being laid off in 2012. NPR

Driving through Breathitt, Perry, Knott, Letcher and Pike counties, you see the remains of a dying industry.

For over 100 years, mining coal in Southeastern Kentucky has been the defining industry for blue-collar work. It was through hard work, bloodshed, tears and the loss of lives that the people of this region earned the right to fair wages, safe work practices and new opportunities through coal.

Now that Old King Coal is gone, residents are looking for answers. The people and the land have all paid a price for those working-class wages, while the corporations walked away with their profits, never looking back.

There were years of boom and bust, boom and bust. Now it seems that there is no match to light the fuse for another boom. As the majority of the region searches for new economic opportunities, there are still a few who can’t seem to allow that last bit of coal dust to slip through their fingers.

In June of 2012, I was working as a foreman for Arch Coal in Knott County. Attending the Environmental Protection Agency’s hearing in Pikeville, I listened to politicians point fingers at the president of our nation. I watched as the Kentucky Coal Association and Friends of Coal KY sold T-shirts to laid-off miners while promising to fight the good fight and bring back the industry.

The introductory round of speeches ended and the stage was set for the general public to speak. One by one, our representative politicians left the building, showing no interest in what we, the people, had to say.

As I stood to speak, wearing my mining uniform, I could see people around me and in the stadium seats above proudly wearing their Friends of Coal and “Stop the War on Coal” T-shirts. They stood and clapped before I could open my mouth.

When I spoke, I asked when we would see the coal companies give back to the people who broke their backs, destroyed their lands so the companies could make millions. Why were they allowed to abandon this ship?

What were organizations like Friends of Coal and the coal association going to do to help us out? Were they friends of coal companies or friends of coal miners?

Backlash from the crowd was immediate. I was told, “Go back to California!” even though I had lived in Letcher County for 29 years. I was confronted by two affiliates of Arch Coal who questioned my short speech.

Two weeks later, Arch Coal idled all operations in Knott and Perry counties. I immediately contacted Friends of Coal Kentucky and the coal association to ask if there were any programs to help laid-off miners find new work, be trained for new skills or get education assistance.

They could not help me. Their funding is used to lobby for the coal industry and to work toward making coal more appealing across the state, I was informed.

According to Guidestar.org, which collects financial information on nonprofits: In 2014, the Kentucky Coal Association reported assets of $659,047 and income of $1,193,227. Friends of Coal Kentucky reported assets of $176,354 and income of $258,669.

Now, four years after I was laid off, I received notification that a family member has been given notice at their mine — after the corporation had filed bankruptcy and given million-dollar bonuses to their executives.

As a University of Kentucky basketball fan, I see the Friends of Coal and Kentucky Coal Association branded advertisements more times than I can stomach. I still see the yard signs scattered throughout my hometown and I continue to hear the same story that I heard in 2012.

The industry has continued to decline, the majority of the population in the coalfields now wants to see a new economic turn for the region, No more lies, no more false hopes.

The top official at the coal association earns over $200,000 annually and other executives earn over $100,000 while unemployed miners are searching for answers.

We need more friends of miners and fewer friends of corporations. #friendsofcoalminers.

Gary Bentley, a Whitesburg native, lives in Lexington and works in manufacturing.