GALATIA, Ill. — After 17 years of fixing cars, Greg Rothchild found the money from carving coal out of the earth's innards simply too hard to pass up.
The married 43-year-old father of two breezed through the 40 hours of training the federal government requires of new below-ground miners, then quickly landed a $1,000-a-week job at a mine earlier this year in this southern Illinois outpost. He was content the schooling was enough to get him safely started.
Others aren't so sure.
The deaths of 12 men at West Virginia's Sago mine last year and the recent cave-in that swallowed up six more in Utah have put the notoriously perilous line of work under fresh scrutiny. And the adequacy of training for new recruits at the nation's 600-plus underground coal mines is just one of the topics.
Tens of thousands of coal miners — by some estimates, as many as half the ranks — are expected to walk one last time out of the sooty, chilly caverns and into the light of retirement in the next several years. The push is on to fill the void.
All of this comes as coal surges in popularity as an alternative to pricey oil and natural gas. More than 120 coal-fired power plants are being built or are on the drawing board. Coal already produces more than half of the nation's energy, and by some federal estimates, U.S. electricity consumption could balloon 40 percent by 2025.
At least so far, finding miners hasn't been a struggle, judging from the waiting lists at miner-training sites. And the risks are an accepted part of the turf in coal country, where jobs often are hard to come by and the money is like gold, commonly $50,000 to $70,000 per year.
While there are plenty of youngbloods ready to replace the retirees, some wonder whether there's enough prep work required of the rookies in a job where death constantly lurks.
"There are a couple of jobs, I guess, where somebody goes to work on any given day and you wonder if they're going to come home or not — a fireman, a policeman, certainly military people in a combat zone. And coal miners," said
Clemmy Allen, chief of the United Mine Workers of America's Pennsylvania-based Career Centers Inc., which trains new miners.
"If you make a mistake down there, it'll kill you," he said.
So far this year, mine fatalities number at least 25 across the country, with 16 of the deaths involving underground mines, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. Since 1900, the agency says, coal mines have claimed more than 104,600 lives.
Terry Burtis, safety chief of a Marion, Ill.-based program that groomed Rothchild for the work, offers the 40-hour training regimen. But Burtis considers that flawed because it covers too much ground in too little time, and he thinks it should be more hands-on.
"I just feel like it'd be better for everyone," said Burtis, whose independent Workplace Development Institute includes a two-level smoke chamber where students can practice escaping a mine fire and other calamities.
States have the option of offering more stringent training standards. While Utah and Illinois call for new underground miners to get the 40 hours the feds require, West Virginia requires double that amount of training.
Many training sites are going high-tech, increasingly turning to simulators in an effort to mimic real-world scenarios.
On 65 acres near Prosperity, Pa., a planned training center for Allen's UMWA program will feature a 100,000-square-foot simulated coal mine.
Allen's program already has two "mine mazes" in Ruff Creek, Pa., and Beckley, W.Va., to give recruits a feel of work hundreds of feet below ground.