Gary Bentley spent 12 years as an underground coal miner in Kentucky before he left the industry in 2013. He started writing about his experiences recently in an effort to combat stereotypes about coal miners he sees in the media and popular culture.
“It’s romanticized in a way that I don’t feel is accurate,” Bentley said.
He said either coal miners are portrayed in nostalgic ways and held up like hometown heroes, or they’re demonized by groups who oppose the coal industry.
“I just feel like you never see straight down the middle, from the eyes of the people that are actually working in the industry,” he said. “I always feel like you’re hearing the stories and opinions from outside the area.”
He discussed his experiences and his writing with WFPL News.
On the perception of coal mining as the only option for prosperity in Eastern Kentucky:
“In that area, you see nice homes, nice cars, boats, motorcycles, these people who are living a very comfortable, good life. And a lot of those are coal miners. In order to go to college, I had to pay for it. And really, working underground was the only way.”
On whether that perception has changed in the coal industry’s recent downturn:
“It’s definitely changed. It’s not a sustainable economy. But when people for over 100 years are born and raised, they see their grandparents, great-grandparents, their children, grandchildren able to make a decent living through that industry, they’re very protective of it. So I think it’s going to be hard for a lot of people to give up the idea that this is still their way to provide.”
On the role coal will play in Eastern Kentucky’s future:
“I look at it as sort of, kind of the way of old-time string music. I mean, it’s still being held onto, it’s actually thriving right now. I think coal mining will be the same way, because it’s our heritage, it’s what we grew up with. So yeah, I think it’s something that will always be held onto and looked at and viewed in the history of Southeastern Kentucky.”
To read more from Bentley’s series “In the Black,” go here.
(Featured image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Peabody Energy.)