CUMBERLAND, Ky. — Layers of rock overhead rumble like thunder. Dirt and pebbles rain down. A rock fall is imminent. So what is a miner to do?
"You run for your life," said Tim Miller, who toiled in Kentucky's mines for more than two decades.
People who work in underground coal mines know what it's like to have to scurry like gophers through the darkness to get away from falling rocks. Miners say that's part of the job, especially when it comes to digging coal from the very pillars that keep layers of rock from collapsing in on them.
Though it may seem strange to people outside the coal industry, generations of miners have been cutting away those pillars to increase coal production in a practice known as retreat mining. It's legal and considered standard procedure. But it has claimed the lives of 17 coal miners in the past seven years.
In Kentucky alone, four miners have been crushed in rock falls during retreat mining in the past 14 months.
"You're definitely playing Russian roulette," said Miller, now an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, which spells out in its contract that members can withdraw from any section of mine they believe is unsafe. "You remove those pillars, the roof is coming down. It's inevitable."
Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher has commissioned a study to look for ways to make retreat mining safer, an initiative he announced soon after two miners were killed in a rock fall three miles inside a mine near Cumberland, Ky., on Aug. 3.
Investigators said the mine roof gave way without warning in the Stillhouse Mining operation, burying the miners under a layer of rocks 20 feet wide, 20 feet long and 11 feet high. The body of Brandon Wilder, 23, was found within a few hours, but it took searchers more than three days to recover the body of 39-year-old Russell Cole.
About half of Kentucky's underground coal mines do retreat mining, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which supports a study of the procedure.
However, Caylor said he believes retreat mining, also known as pillaring, or secondary mining, is important because it allows companies to get more coal than they otherwise would.
In underground coal mining, crews first do what's called advance mining, digging into the mountain to remove coal that now sells for $50 to $60 a ton. In that process, about 30 to 40 percent of the coal is removed by cutting a maze of 20-foot-wide tunnels through it, said J. Steven Gardner, a Kentucky mining engineer. Coal pillars 25 to 100 feet across are left in place. The result is a network of tunnels that look like the map of a city of crisscrossing streets with coal pillars as the blocks in between.
When companies have advanced as far as possible, they begin retreat mining, so named because the miners are working toward the outside of the mine. In retreat mining, the companies usually remove another 20 percent of the coal from the pillars, though that percentage can be much higher if geology permits.
Terry Hock, chief of the roof control division of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said coal companies may partially remove the pillars by mining through the middle of them. In some cases, they remove the entire pillars, leaving the mine ceiling unsupported.
State and federal regulatory agencies review every company's plan for retreat mining to make sure it's safe and workable. "They're scrutinized heavily," said Paris Charles, head of Kentucky's Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.
Retreat mining is almost exclusively a southern Appalachian practice, with 83 percent of the nation's retreat mining operations in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia. Those three states account for the most retreat mining simply because they also account for most of the nation's underground coal mining activity.
They also account for the most deaths — 14 of the 17 fatalities during the past seven years.
Mine Safety and Health Administration deputy administrator John Langton said most of the miners killed during retreat mining were either setting up posts or jacks to help hold up the mine ceiling or were operating the toothy machines that chew the coal loose from inside the mountains.
For now, UMW President Cecil Roberts said the union has yet to take a position against retreat mining but supports Kentucky studying a practice he compared to "going under your house and taking the support beams out."
Butch Oldham, a UMW safety specialist in Madisonville, said retreat mining is inherently dangerous and is becoming more so as coal companies open mines in areas passed by in decades past because they were considered unstable.
"It can be safer than what it is, but even at its best, the roof conditions are getting worse," he said. "Whether it can be done safe enough to never have anyone killed, I'm kind of doubtful of that."