Coal Episode 8 Recap: The Past Catches Up With Cobalt

June 8, 2011
There are only TWO new episodes left in Coal's premiere season. It's been a constant battle for Tom Roberts and Mike Crowder's startup mining corporation, Cobalt, to stay afloat. In this week's episode, "Haunted By The Past," the crew can't help but look back at the miners who came before them in the hopes of learning from their mistakes as well as their successes. All new episodes of Coal air Sundays at 8PM/7c.

It took Cobalt Coal four weeks and $14,000 to hook up their new powerful generator, all in an effort to prevent the power outages that were keeping the company from turning a profit, but it only took 36 hours for the same generator to fail. Luckily for Cobalt, the fuel gauge proved to be the culprit and the only thing preventing "full steam ahead" for the miners was an empty gas tank. However, with the roads blocked with snow, help was not quick on the way. Left with no power, shift foreman Jerry "Wildman" Edwards put his crew to work using their hands, having them "dust" the walls of the mine with a fine powder and keeping the coal strong and locked into the walls thus making it easier to mine. A few hours and $4,000 later, the fuel truck finally made it through to the Westchester Mine. The generator was topped off, and the miners were once again back in the coal. Unfortunately for them, their problems weren't over.

As miner man Andy Christian got the continuous miner back up on its feet, the powerful piece of machinery stumbled upon a pocket of water. Water in a mine is serious business. Sometimes even the smallest of underground leaks can lead to the biggest and most dangerous of floods, leaving the lives of the miners in the utmost peril. The rush of water proved to be minimal, but Roberts and Crowder couldn't help but be concerned that another wrong turn in the mine could unleash a true disaster. With this sense of uncertainty, they would need to investigate further and tap into local experts as to what may or may not be in store should Cobalt continue to mine according to plan.

It's moments like these that bring back the tough memories of coal mining's past. Outside man Johnny Simms tells us through his experiences and those of his relatives what it meant to be a miner from the beginning of the 20th century all the way through the late '70s. There weren't machines. It was all done by man and by dynamite. It was also during this time that the now small town of Welch, West Virginia was booming. Populated by nearly 100,000 people, everywhere you turned there was a new store opening up and the streets were filled with traffic. However, as the easy coal was removed from the mines and quality material became that much harder to excavate, the stores started to close up and the people began to move away taking Welch down to a population of not much more than 20,000 today. Hard to believe that there was an 80% decrease in population in just a few decades. Things are starting to look up for Welch though as small companies like Cobalt begin to find new ways to mine the natural resource, but until a few more open their doors things can only improve so much.

Looking for every dollar they can in the small town life, miners are prone to leaving their respective companies at a moment's notice, and Cobalt is no exception. With the recent defection of electrician Eddie Branch to another mining company in a search of more money, Tom and Mike are worried that soon other members of their crew will follow. It's a part of any business, and all they can do is help provide as much of an incentive for their miners to stay on. For them that means strong leadership and a safe environment to work in.

Much like with flooding, the buildup of methane gas can be a real concern within a mine. As foreman RB Davis made his rounds trough the mine he managed to uncover high levels of the gas thanks to a handheld meter. The gas is odorless, so it is difficult to detect if you're not vigilant in seeking it out. Ordinarily, mines use a series of curtains and fans to thin out the gas levels, but in this particular instance the curtains had fallen down and no one on the crew had taken the care to put them back up. Negligence is a miner's worst enemy. The nearby West Virginia Big Branch mine explosion of 2010, which killed 29 miners, occurred due to a buildup of methane. To this day, investigations have proved inconclusive as to how this actually occurred, but one thing is for certain it is a lesson well learned for other mining companies: leave nothing to chance.

As Mike Crowder's schedule cleared up with the mine in full swing, he took off to the surrounding areas of Welch, seeking out the experts he so sorely needed in order to find out just what was in store for him and his mine. Would they hit more water? Or would it be smooth sailing? For a small mining company, you're expected to run into roadblocks along the way, but Cobalt just seems to be getting more than their fair share. In speaking with a local who mined the surrounding areas nearly fifty years ago, Mike learned that his maps were wrong and that if the continuous miner moved left then it would open up a sealed off mine filled with water and flood his own Westchester mine. The only choice remaining is to go right. Cobalt does not have the lease for that land however. Decisions will need to be made and perhaps more money will need to be spent if Crowder wants his company to stick around for another year.

Tune in next Sunday at 8PM/7c for an all-new episode of Coal, and keep an eye out for exclusive content and updates on, Facebook, and on Twitter.