Monday, April 07, 2014

Rathole mining

I will admit that, if it had not been for the catchy come-on – rathole mining? what, from a Pink Slip perspective, is there not to like with respect to that as an occupation? – I might well have given an article on coal mining in Poland a pass. But given my long standing antipathy towards rats, and my long standing interest in awful jobs, here you go.

Plus I’ve been to Eastern Europe, so I understand the importance (and prevalence) of coal: the pervasive brown miasma, the sulfur odor that a lot of that Eastern Euro coal gives off. (Or used to at least. I actually haven’t been in an Eastern European winter since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is now almost 25 years ago, so I’m not entirely current.)

But I haven’t given a single ton – let alone 16 tons – of thought to the Polish coal mining industry. Nor had I ever heard of the dirty old town of Walbrzych.

I can now consider myself enlightened.

Poland is a big coal country, and big coal-mining country.

Poland is Europe’s largest producer of hard coal, and both black and brown coal mines flourish in other parts of the country, from abundant mines in Upper Silesia to the north, to the giant open pit mine in Belchatow, in the east. (Source: NY Times)

Belchatow?  You mean a town with a giant open pit mine that also happens to produce 20% of Poland’s energy via a coal-fueled plant is called Belchatow. How great is that?

Anyway, it’s not Belchatow, it’s Walbrzych where the rathole mining occurs.

The practice of digging coal illegally is often called “rathole mining.” It is better known in places like India, or in South Africa, where illegal mining accidents recently killed five men. But it’s also common in Lower Silesia, near the Czech border.

Rathole mining took off when the legit coal mines that operated up until the collapse of communism were shut down. The mines that were shuttered weren’t making money, they weren’t efficient, and they were dangerous. None of which mattered all that much under the old regime.

Anyway, the market did its thing, and, overall, Poland became the poster economy for the old Soviet Bloc. Which worked out pretty well for the country as a whole. Just not for the coal miners of Walbrzych.

So just like all those East Germans who found themselves out of a job when Germany was reunited, and there was no longer a need for factories that produced a shoddy, left-shoes-only product, the coal miners of Walbrzych found they had a nothing to do in the brave new world.

So, like good free marketers – kinda/sorta: they don’t actually own the coal fields – the rathole miners became entrepreneurs, mining coal on their own and selling it on the black market at a discount of 30 to 40 percent.

Rathole mining is illegal, and those who are caught pick or burlap bag of coal in hand have to pay a stiff fine. But in a town where there are few employment alternatives, there are few employment alternatives.

The plight of the rathole miners has spawned a couple of activists – themselves former ratholers  - who have begun advocating for rathole mining to be decriminalized. And they want to have technology put in place that will make it all less dangerous. Given Poland’s insatiable hunger for coal, all this may be feasible. (Forget that this insatiable hunger for coal might not be the most environmentally friendly thing going on in the world.)

But the re-opening of the Walbrzych coal mines won’t be happening if the city’s mayor has anything to say. Roman Szelemej – who isn’t just the mayor; he’s also a cardiologist – wants nothing to do with coal mines.

He wants to bring Toyota to town, and thinks the rathole miners need an attitude adjustment. Being a rathole miner, while not exactly a fun-fun thing to do, is to him the easy way out:

“It’s much easier than to go to the Toyota factory and work from 7:30 up to 5:30 or 6:30, regularly, day after day,” he said. Mining was hard work, he said, but also easier in a way than staying with a steady job.

Nice to see that sneering at the poor and the displaced is a universal trait, isn’t it?

Why don’t we get that Toyota plant in there and see how many folks would rather work on a dangerous slag heap than make cars.

I’m sure that some rathole miners might stay on the heap, but I’m betting that most of them would rather be working where it’s clean and warm, where it’s safe, and where payday doesn’t involve finding a middle man to take a sack of dirty coal off your hands.

Just sayin’.

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