Profile: Deep in the Heart of Coal Country


Mark Kwisnek has been a coal miner for more than 40 years. He works in a profession that’s undergoing a serious transformation but one that also has some interesting opportunities ahead focused on smart reclamation and revitalization efforts.

“My dad was a part-time farmer, and he also worked at strip mining. Coal mining is a really big deal in Western Pennsylvania, so my dad and his brothers were all employees in the mining industry,” Kwisnek said during a phone interview inside the excavator he was operating in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania.

His father would take him to work on Saturdays where he would do equipment repairs on the machines used to remove coal. “My dad would let us pretend to run the equipment; start it, and let us sit on his lap,” he said. “I guess [I got] the bug then.” Kwisnek decided to forego college, and began his first mining job around 1975, at the age of 18, perhaps many years after the actor Charles Bronson – who starred in westerners like The Magnificent Seven – worked in one of the local coal mines in Ehrenfeld before he was discovered. 

Kwisnek is a third generation coal miner whose grandfather left the Ukraine and came to America seeking a job in the mines. At the time he was growing up, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, which was founded in 1857, was one of the largest steel producers with coal operations in the country, and it stood in the heart of the industrial revolution. “Everyone here was a coal miner,” he said recounting the time, in the mid to late 70s. “It’s kinda in our blood.”

In ’75 the mining industry was experiencing a boom. Work was good, and there was a lot of dirt to move.  “My first job paid $6.42 an hour,” Kwisnek said of his start at a family owned, large to medium-sized company United Mine Workers. “That was considered good money back then, and we had time and a half for overtime.” As a laborer/trainee, he did the grunt work, hand shoveling, loading blasting holes and helping the mechanics. “They want you to see the operation, get familiar with it and then slowly transition to being an operator.” 

Today, Kwisnek’s work is a little different. As an equipment operator for Rosebud Mining Co. out of Kittanning, P.A., focusing on metallurgical coal, Kwisnek works 10 hours a day for a company that will haul away millions of tons of coal and restore 62 acres of barren land under a plan inspired by the President’s POWER + plan, a proposal to invest in abandoned mine land reclamation work opportunities. With this in mind, Rosebud Mining Co. has been able to adapt to the changing industry and provide a path forward for their employees and their bottom line.  

Kwisnek grew up in Blairsville, P.A. about 26 miles West of Ehernfeld, where two weeks ago U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made a visit with Pennsylvania native and director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Joe Pizarchik to launch the Abandoned Mine Lands Economic Revitalization program (AMLER), the first coal mine reclamation pilot program that helps coal miners get back to work. 

Kwisnek has been fortunate. He has consistently had steady work in the coal mining business since he first started as an 18-year-old. But his dad’s generation was not so lucky when the steel industry went bottom up. “My uncle worked at the Johnstown Bethlehem steeleworkers for 30 years. I saw him lose his job because steel production went overseas. It changed this area.” For today’s coal workers in the heart of coal country in Pennsylvania, this might seem like history is repeating itself.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were around 56,700 coal miners employed across the U.S. as of March 2016, which is down about 11,200 jobs from March 2015 when some 67,900 coal miners had jobs. The Obama Administration has recognized this loss and, to help these communities adapt to the changing energy landscape and build a better future, the President’s FY 2016 Budget proposed the POWER+ Plan as part of the RECLAIM Act -- calling for accelerating the release of $1 billion to coal mining states from the unappropriated balance in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to revitalize coal communities hard hit by abandoned mines and the decline in coal mining. 

Kwisnek's work on the project – under the AMLER program -- began in June, and will remove 2.4 million yards of coal waste from underground mining operations which had been left there for nearly 70 years. The refuse will be transported to an adjacent coal mine area, blended with alkaline material to eliminate its toxicity, and used to backfill abandoned coal mine pits. The area will be re-graded, re-seeded and mulched to promote re-vegetation, including planting native trees.

“This mine remediation has been here since the turn of the century,” Kwisnek said. “It’s been an eyesore. So for us to clean this up, it's good for the community and surrounding streams.

“We’re doing it efficiently, and it’s good for everybody. It’s good for the economy. It’s also good for the environment,” he said, “It should have been done years ago. It’s money well spent.”

Kwisnek pointed out that the area still needs highways and infrastructure but said that the funding for  this type of revitalization work is vital. And as far as coal goes, Kwisnek understands that even though the work might look and feel a little different, he says, “There are still coal jobs to be had…. because at the heart of it, we’re all still coal miners.”