Secretary Solis Heads Underground

Tomorrow, new Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis will be visiting an underground coal mine in northern W.Va., the AP recently reported. The mine is Patriot Coal Co. Federal No. 2.

Federal No. 2 is a large, old mine that has been churning out coal for more than 40 years. More than 500 people work there, about 400 in the underground mine, about 50 in a preparation plant and the rest in other surface areas and the office. The injury rate there is better than the national average, but it’s not a squeaky-clean, new showpiece of an operation. The miners are represented by the United Mine Workers of America.

The last Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, never did get to an underground mine. The one before that, Alexis Herman, also visited Federal No. 2.

Most earlier Secretaries of Labor went into underground coal mines at some point during their terms. Coal mines in northern West Virginia get more than their share of VIP visits because visitors can make a round trip from Washington in one day–if they plan well.

The visitors drive or fly to the area of Morgantown, W.Va. They drive the local roads to the mine, meet and greet people, and change into mine gear. They get basic training session on mine hazards and hands-on training to use a breathing device in an emergency. Then there’s a long ride in a personnel carrier to the coal face while guides explain what they are seeing.

They talk to miners and watch production at the face. Sometimes they actually operate the longwall for a short time. Then they have a ride back that also takes time. After the underground visit, visitors usually stick around a while to talk with miners and reporters.

Most first-time visitors to an underground coal mine are surprised to learn about a lot of things. Surprises include the cold wind from the ventilating air, the white surfaces from rock dust, how easy it would be to get turned around in the grid of tunnels–and the total dark when lights are shut off. It’s a great experience, especially for any person whose job includes safety in the mines.

I visited Federal No. 2 myself once when it belonged to Peabody Energy. In 2007, Patriot Coal split off from Peabody, taking Federal No. 2 along with other mines.


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