Caitlin Tan Published

Q&A: Coal Reality — The Way Forward

Gary Bentley stands outside a Letcher County, Ky., coal mine where he worked before he was laid off in 2012.

One big takeaway from the 2016 election is that people are people — not political categories — which is a topic of interest for former coal miner Gary Bentley.

Bentley is from eastern Kentucky and now lives in Lexington. He has written extensively about his time underground, including in a blog series called ‘In the Black’ for the Daily Yonder.

He spoke with reporter Caitlin Tan about his thoughts going into the general election.

This story has been lightly edited for clarity.

Caitlin Tan: So we actually had you on the show a few years ago, you told us about your 12 years underground in the mines. And you talked about how you don’t like how the national media portrays coal miners. For those who didn’t hear that episode, can you kind of walk us through that again, and why you feel that way? And why you started writing about it?

Gary Bentley: Yes. So you know, I always see two sides coming from people that are outside the region or that aren’t familiar with the coal industry, and the people that worked in it or are still working in it. You get the romanticized photos, a lot of people refer to it as poverty porn, of black and white photos of these miners covered in coal dust, holding picks and shovels and the little metal dinner buckets standing outside of a coal mine or on their front porch. Then you also get the side where it’s the Republican worker standing behind political candidates. And then you’ve got the opioid addiction issue that seems to, for some reason, find its way into all of the coal industry portrayals of the people working. You know, it’s a blend of all of that. And there was a wide variety of people that worked underground, and I worked in several different regions — nobody actually fit into one specific category or mold. And I just wanted people to see what it was really like, what the people were really like and some of the things that went on underground.

Tan: We last talked, you know, four to five years ago. Have your thoughts and opinions morphed on the mining industry or changed?

Bentley: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that my thoughts have necessarily changed, but I’ve seen a lot of things coming from distant friends or family members that have sort of changed my opinion on why a lot of those people maybe leaned in the political direction that they did.

Tan: During the 2016 election, and honestly, still now, Appalachians and coal miners are often labeled as Trump country. And I’m wondering, do you feel like that’s accurate? Or do you feel like there’s more nuance?

Bentley: Yeah, I mean, it is complicated. And I’ll just say, regardless of how people take my answer, but if you look at the region as a whole, I’m gonna say it is “Trump country.” But at the same time, there are a lot of people that live in that area that are not Trump supporters. They don’t support the policies and actions and things that he has said — there are very open-minded people that live in that region. And so to say that everyone from Appalachia is a Trump supporter or supporter of those types of conservative beliefs is inaccurate, but stereotypes and labels exist somewhat for a reason. And when you look at the region as a whole and the majority of the population, unfortunately, I don’t see it being that inaccurate.

Tan: And you say, “unfortunately,” where’s your thought process coming from on that?

Bentley: Well, you know, I hate to think that the area I grew up and lived in and I still care about, would be so stuck in the beliefs of racism, hate and divisiveness that they would still be so staunchly proud and supportive of Trump.

Tan: What kind of issues are on your mind this election cycle? I mean, as a former miner, you had to move away from Appalachia for employment.

Bentley: So politically, my biggest concern is the economy and what’s gonna keep that area alive, and at the same time it’s the systemic racism.

Tan: And you were saying that you’ve kind of over the years tried to understand where friends or family or former co-workers might be coming from, in their values and why they might feel resentment towards the left and feel strongly toward Trump this election cycle. Can you explain more?

Bentley: I guess I would blame the majority of all of that on the media, because a lot of the beliefs and feelings I have come from a place of ignorance of just not knowing, not experiencing. And from the time I was young, it was always you know, coal jobs, coal jobs, coal jobs. There was never any real talk about diversifying the economy. And so the majority of people really believed like, coal is all they have, like, without coal jobs, we have nothing. And in my region of Appalachia, Christianity and Christian values were like, probably the No. 1 thing on people’s minds when they go to vote.

Tan: So back in 2016, then candidate Donald Trump promised to “bring back coal” if he was elected, but in fact, coal production hit some of the lowest levels last year. Do you feel like there’s a way to bring back coal? Do you think Trump could realistically deliver on that promise? Or do you think the decline is inevitable?

Bentley: Well, it’s inevitable. Coal has been in decline when they left the pick and shovel era of mining and brought in machinery. From that point forward, coal jobs have decreased every year. And you know, it’s all a play on numbers. So they may say, “Oh, there was a coal boom, say in 1980.” But in reality, the business may have raised a small bit, and there may have been more coal being purchased. But the number of jobs never increased to the level it was 10 years prior, 20 years prior. Yeah, there may have been 800 new coal jobs in a year. But that doesn’t account for the 3,000 coal jobs that were lost five years prior.

Tan: That brings me to my last question, which is that you live and work in Lexington now. Do you ever see yourself coming back to Appalachia?

Bentley: You know, I don’t know that I would, or could, I’m not saying I wouldn’t, because I would love to live there, but at this point in time, I could not go back because of the lack of job opportunities. Also I’ve got to think about the future of my daughter, you know, what would she do? Is she gonna be forced to leave as I was? And until there is a drastic change in the economy and more job opportunities, I can’t go back. And the majority of my friends that have been forced to leave the area, just like I was, they say the same thing. You know, there’s nothing that would allow me to go back.

Tan: Is there anything else related to what we’re talking about that you wanted to say or add?

Bentley: So, my biggest concern is I would like for people, when they go vote, when they look at who they’re going to vote for, that they would look for who is going to do the most for the area they live in and actually boost the economy and make positive impacts and changes, because nobody can bring the coal industry back. Nobody can change where the coal industry is at this time.