This story was published in collaboration with Ohio Valley Resource, a regional journalism collaborative reporting on economic and social change in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.
Listen to the audio version by Sydney Boles below:
On a blistering August afternoon in Cumberland, Kentucky, David Pratt, Jr. stood in the middle of a two-lane highway, holding a sign that read “COAL MINERS AND TRUCKERS AGAINST CORPORATE AMERICA.” A few yards away, his father, David Pratt Sr., who is graying but still muscular, leaned back in a lawn chair perched precariously on the crossties of a railroad. His eyes focused on the spot where the tracks disappeared around the bend and more than $1 million worth of coal idled in train cars.
Since Junior was a boy, the two have job-hopped or taken pay cuts to work side by side underground. Junior tried to make sure his dad didn’t work too hard; Senior often challenged him, saying he was just as capable as the younger men. Now, they were together again, 20 days into a protest of their former employer, Blackjewel — once the nation’s sixth largest coal producer. In July, the company declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,700 coal miners, and clawed paychecks from their bank accounts.
The miners said they wouldn’t leave until they were given the money they were owed. About 400 in Kentucky couldn’t pay their bills. Utilities cut off services. Banks repossessed cars. Families moved to find other work. Junior had to leave often to care for his kids, but Senior and his wife, Wanda, stayed on the tracks until the bitter end — 59 days after the blockade began.
Soon after they dispersed, the media, the public, and the lawmakers all moved on. A court battle between Blackjewel and the U.S. Department of Labor won the miners their pay, and the train chugged out of Cumberland, another chapter of Appalachia’s long labor rights history closed. I reported on the protest for months, and it felt like an unsatisfying ending: Miners still without work, mine land still degraded and abandoned, coal executives still multimillionaires.
But the Pratts told me it was a turning point.
I met with them, along with their families, on a rainy February night at the Gordon Volunteer Fire Department in Letcher County, Kentucky. We huddled close on plastic folding chairs. Once in a while, a car came around the steep switchbacks crossing Pine Mountain, its headlights strobing through the windows of the dim and cavernous meeting hall like a coal miner’s headlamp.
The Pratts’ lives have changed drastically. David Sr. is on the road for weeks at a time, driving for a trucking company, and David Jr. and his wife work at the local community college while getting their nursing degrees, earning $7.25 an hour. With the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary closure of the school, however, their lives have once more been thrown into chaos. Wanda and Wendy are currently staying home, while Junior has taken the navigator’s seat beside his dad.
Despite the economic hardships, neither man is angry. Senior said the Blackjewel protest “proved to the younger generation that there’s things that can be done,” and he rejects the notion that he lost anything. “All it done was open another door up,” he said.
As we talked late into the evening, Senior gazed proudly at his son. “People don’t like it, but this is the biggest blessing that ever happened to us, to my family. It stopped him,” he said. “That’s it. He’s the last of the Pratts going into the coal mines. His son will probably never go in. And to me, that’s worth every penny.”
David Pratt Sr. was born in 1962 in a coal camp in Vicco, Kentucky, to a long line of coal miners who spent most of their lives underground. He started mining at age 17, making $11.75 an hour — about $42 an hour today. “Big money,” Senior told me, eyes wide. “And money was hard to come by.” He liked the work: It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop or a rat scamper a mile away. If you turned off your headlamp, it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And he liked the camaraderie. “You’d help your worst enemy in a coal mine,” he said.
The first time Junior went to work with his dad, he was only eight. “I instantly fell in love with it,” he said. “The environment, the people.” As he rode the rail car like a roller coaster, he decided he’d be a coal miner, just like his dad and his papaw.
While Junior was in high school, his father was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma and given three months to live. Senior said his itch to get back underground kept him alive. On his trips to chemotherapy, he drove past an exhaust fan where treated air escaped a mine. “It’s just like [when] you go home and you smell your mama’s house,” he said. The same company gave him his job back in 2007, after six years away as he fought the disease. “It felt good that they had enough respect for me to do that for me,” he said.
Senior wanted his son to get an education, but Junior dropped out of community college and got a job underground for $17 an hour instead. Senior was was hot with anger, but he said deep down, he knew it would happen. “Coal mining is bred into you,” he told me.
From the time the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company laid tracks across eastern Kentucky in 1911, the region’s economy was tied to the fortunes of the black rock and the whims of the coal barons who controlled it. Companies built coal towns, like the one Senior was raised in, and used a scrip economy — money they created that could only be used at their stores — to keep workers beholden to them. Throughout the century, miners unionized to win shorter workdays, higher pay, and safer working conditions, but they faced threats and violence from the government and coal companies.
By the time Junior got underground, the industry was changing. A glut of cheap natural gas and federal subsidies for renewable energy in the last decade made coal a less desirable source of energy, and mechanization in the mining industry meant companies needed fewer employees. Miners have told me they would regularly go into each shift prepared to be laid off by the end of it.
New safety regulations and procedures were increasingly at odds with the practices of Senior’s generation — they took care of things themselves. So if his men said there was a problem, Senior fixed it himself, instead of alerting authorities. When bosses started recommending the men wear bulky respirators to protect them from black lung, he declined to do so. He couldn’t spit tobacco through a respirator.
Black lung disease, or coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, takes root when tiny particles of coal and rock dust get lodged in the networks of lung tissue, restricting the flow of oxygen. The disease can be fatal; there is no cure. People who suffer from it have told me it is like drowning on dry land.
A 2018 investigation by NPR found that rates of the most severe forms of black lung disease are far more prevalent than experts previously believed. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report one in five experienced central Appalachian coal miners has some stage of black lung. Miners working as roof bolters — installing supports in the rock that keep mines from caving in — are the most likely to get sick.
Both Junior and Senior worked as roof bolters for most of their careers. Senior doesn’t want to say if he has black lung, and Junior is worried that eventually, he may see the effects of his work in the coal mines. He thinks he got out in enough time — unlike the majority of his family.
“My papaw had it,” he said, looking at his father.
Senior jumped in: “His daddy.”
“My uncles,” Junior said. “I think my papaws on both sides had it.”
“Yep, we lost James on account of that,” Senior said.
Junior finished for him. “About every male in our family that worked in the mine had it.”
Senior isn’t angry or sad when he talks about the disease, and doesn’t place blame on the coal companies or regulators, despite the fact that the companies and regulators clearly hold some of the blame. “Nobody held a gun to my head. I understood the consequences.” He told me he had a choice to go into mining: He could have been a logger, or worked in a restaurant “flipping burgers,” or gone to college and moved away.
His son, who is 30 now, sees things a little differently. Coal mining is the most accessible way to make a living wage, even if the industry is unstable (Junior skittered between nine different companies in the 10 years he worked underground). Unemployment is higher in many eastern Kentucky counties than in the rest of the country. Recently, industrial parks and renewable energy projects have been pitched as solutions, but many have not yet materialized: Funding hasn’t come through, strip-mined land is unsuitable for building, or market dynamics changed. It’s hard for residents to place any faith in sustainable economic development ideas.
The Pratts’ trust in coal companies has wavered, too. In the winter of 2018-2019, both were working for Blackjewel in a mine near Cumberland. It was -6 degrees outside, but with the airflow, it felt closer to -12. Water leaked in the entryway, and spray that went up liquid clattered to the ground as ice. Junior got wet trying to fix the leak. He remembers coughing, struggling to breathe, and then nothing. His men found him lying face-down in the entryway, and he was taken out in an ambulance. Senior was a mile down the road at an extension of the same mine. “They didn’t even call me,” he said. It felt like a slap in the face. “They didn’t care. They had no respect.”
Junior and Senior spend more time with their families now that they have new careers. Senior makes about half what he did working for Blackjewel, but he’s above ground to see the sun rise for the first time in 40 years.
Most mornings, at least until the coronavirus hit, Junior and his wife, Wendy, dropped off their children at her parents’ house and headed to Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland, less than a mile from the site of the months-long protest. They worked minimum wage jobs scanning documents in the art department while they waited to find out if they got into nursing school. When the school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the couple found themselves once more out of a job.
The number of people employed in coal mining in Appalachia has dropped most years since the 1980s. Many families leave in search of other work, and some, like Senior, have become truck drivers. Junior’s decision to go into nursing makes him an outlier, but he is not alone in seeking further education. Many former miners enter job training programs — some of which have questionable results or lead workers to jobs that are likely to vanish due to offshoring or automation.
Blackjewel’s bankruptcy was just one of eight major coal company bankruptcies last year, despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to prop up the struggling industry. Both of the Pratts voted for Trump in the 2016 election, and plan to do so in 2020; they’re still worried about the ripple effects of coal’s decline in Appalachia. “This economy around here is solely based off of mining,” Junior said. “I mean, as bad as I hate to say that, it is.”
Both men repeatedly told me coal mining was in their blood, but they were glad to be leaving it behind. I asked how they could hold both of those things simultaneously. Senior gestured behind him. His granddaughters, baby Willow and 6-year-old Arieunna, were dozing on their mother’s and grandmother’s laps. Cadien, who is 8, practiced his baseball swing with a stick he’d found in the fireplace. Cadien would probably never be a coal miner, Senior said.
“That right over there justifies everything. That’s what this whole mess has done. There’s going to be something better for him.”
Sydney Boles covers economic transitions in Appalachia for Ohio Valley Resource. She’s based in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
This story was supported by the Even T. Collinsworth Jr. Memorial Fund.