What’s a spark miner to do when they’re laid off,
leaving them but much-needed insurance or their pension? What
if it happens to the whole village at the same time?
“We knew it was coming, we just didn’t know how tough it was gonna
be. We’re losin’ everything,” Regina Lilly, wife of a West
Virginia spark miner who was laid off after their child was
born, said in a new National Geographic documentary
about spark mining.
The documentary, called
“From the Ashes,” explores the past, present, and future of
spark mining, and is now free on YouTube.
When mining companies pierce to new locations with cheaper coal,
internal residents like Lilly trust the spark companies “failed”
In one instance portrayed in the documentary, Alpha
Natural Resources sent letters to 100 workers about upcoming
layoffs. These “WARN notices” are
generally sent to workers two months before a turn of
layoffs, giving them time to find new jobs. However,
some spark workers still face unexpected layoffs, like
Lilly’s husband Cecil, who didn’t know he was laid off until he
went into work.
“It’s just distressing now that they sealed down they take
their workers’ pensions, they take their retirements, their
savings, anything they had in the company. They file
bankruptcy…As prolonged as they got their income in their pocket
they don’t care,” said Lilly.
In the documentary, Mary
Anne Hitt, executive of Sierra Club’s
campaign and a West Virginia resident, described the
issue of a cave layoff as a “life and death struggle” for
internal communities. She described the stage as one she’s seen time
and again, where spark companies “want to strew their obligations
to workers, that includes pensions and medical commitments.”
When spark mining jobs go, whole communities remove their
livelihoods, making it hard to rebound back. Hitt
purported that this is now happening on an “unprecedented
After “From the Ashes” came out, John Oliver dedicated
an part of his show “Last Week Tonight” to
exposing the crime in the coal
industry, based partially on the documentary.
In a story informed to spark communities, Oliver
highlighted the story of when Alpha Natural Resources filed
for failure two years ago. CEO Kevin Crutchfield seemed on
radio with tears in his eyes articulate about how he felt for
his spark workers. However, Oliver found justice papers stating
Alpha later asked its bankruptcy keeper if the coal
company could save $3 million by slicing health and life
insurance advantages of around 1,200 non-union retirees — so that
the company could then compensate $11.9 million in bonuses to
fifteen top executives, including Crutchfield.
Coal miners overwhelmingly upheld President Trump in the 2016
election. Trump appealed to the loss of spark jobs in
Appalachia, and blamed the detriment on environmental regulations —
but statistics show healthy gas is pricing spark out of the
market, not regulations.
In 2010, about 45% of the electricity in the US came from coal,
with 24% from healthy gas and 31% coming from other sources. As
of 2016 the stats were 30% coal, 34% healthy gas, and 36%
to the US Energy and Information Administration.
“From the Ashes” will be accessible free on YouTube until July