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Coal workers deal with uncertain future with Biden's infrastructure plan

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Posted at 10:11 AM, May 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-07 11:47:01-04

WHEELING, W.V. — It is a resource that cannot be measured just by the power it produces.

“Coal means everything to this part of the country," said coal miner Matt Huonker.

“Without the coal mines in this area, there wouldn’t be an Ohio Valley I wouldn’t think," coal miner Michael Knight said.

In some parts of America, families are fueled by coal. It’s been that way for generations.

“You’re either a coal miner or you’re not," said Rick Altman with the United Mine Workers of America.

What it takes to mine coal is something only those who go beneath the surface, day in and day out, truly understand.

“What we do every day is not for everybody, not everybody can do it, and it takes a special kind of person to do what we do," said Huonker.

Coal and mining define places like those around Wheeling, West Virginia, but it’s an industry that’s lost more than half of its jobs over the past decade as America has looked elsewhere for energy, according to the UMWA.

"It’s not a good industry to be in right now. There’s a war on coal, whether people want to say it or not," Huonker said.

Now, as President Joe Biden is pushing a more than $2 trillion infrastructure plan, with billions going toward green energy, those in the coal industry are concerned about what that could mean for the future of their jobs.

“Look, we all want clean water and clean air, but there are ways to do this, and I don’t believe the destruction of good-paying jobs with good health care, I don’t believe we have researched, the government has researched other avenues to be able to take it," Altman said.

The UMWA has supported Biden’s green energy plans with the promise that people like coal miners will keep their jobs, but a promise can only mean so much for Altman.

"Where’s the plan other than, you know, you saying it’s going to be, well show me in black and white that people have committed, not just the government but manufacturers and companies have committed to the reeducation and restructuring of this country," he said.

It’s not the first time those in West Virginia have heard the political promises of saving coal country.

“It’s easy to talk, I’m doing that, but show me show what you’re going to do, tell me who’s coming, and we haven’t seen that yet," Altman said.

The union wants to see a national training program to help dislocated miners find other jobs and tuition money to go back to school. But change, while perhaps inevitable for the coal industry, won’t be easy to embrace for some miners like Huonker.

“No, I don’t want to switch careers. I like what I do. I don’t want to switch careers at all," he said.

It’s unclear what the future will hold for places like West Virginia and its communities that have long relied on a resource that America is relying on less.

But whatever the plan, the political promises, these coal workers want to make sure they are not left behind.

“We power this country. We do it safely, we do it efficiently and all we ask is to put some money in to keep everybody in a job," Altman said.