Coal has always been political. A century ago, miners were at the forefront of battles between workers and bosses in the burgeoning industrial union movement. Today, the decline of mining jobs has put coal at the forefront of a new battle— one that, on the surface, pits environmentalists against working families. Are good paying jobs and a healthy environment mutually exclusive?
After Coal is a stirring film about how families, dependent on the coal industry, are adapting to its ongoing decline. It’s an earnest attempt to put politics aside and consider the human impact of our country’s changing economic and environmental needs.
The Ohio Theatre screens the documentary Saturday, July 8, featuring author Gary Bentley, who worked as a Kentucky coal miner for twelve years. We spoke with Bentley to find out what viewers can expect to learn.
What is your background with mining?
I worked for twelve years as an underground miner. I started after high school to pay for college. It was the normal, expected thing to do, but I didn’t think much of it until my first day underground.
Working underground, you only have about 36-48” of vertical clearance in most places. When your light goes out, it’s a darkness you just can’t experience anywhere else. There’s no shred of light peeking out from anywhere. Much of the time, you can’t see your hand in front of your face, and your eyes can see shadows that play tricks on you.
What are the biggest cultural misconceptions people have about miners?
I feel like especially in major media outlets, coal miners are seen as heroes and saints— brave men going in to provide for their families doing a dangerous job, which isn’t entirely dishonest. Then there’s the other side that portrays them as ignorant people clinging to a dying industry or drug addicts who can’t get better work— which also isn’t entirely dishonest.
There were numerous people I worked with who were college educated. I worked with guys who even had law degrees, but become miners because they wanted to stay close to their families and work where they grew up.
When it comes to the politics of it, it’s not that mining families agree with everything that is being said, or that they’re voting against their own interests. It’s that they’re out of a job and that’s all they know to do about it.
How do the miners you’ve worked with balance out their interest in having a clean environment with having a good paying job?
It comes up a lot. It’s a very complicated issue because people want clean water and clean air, they want the land to look decent and be usable when the process is done, but the mining companies aren’t run by people in those communities. Companies based in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Florida, run them. The people who should be responsible for making sure the land and the people are taken care of don’t live there.
Ohio Theatre and Events Center
3114 Lagrange Street | Toledo, OH
419-255-8406 | ohiotheatretoledo.org
3pm. Saturday, July 8. $10.