A Miner’s Story
George “Aaron” Leath was born and raised in Harlan County, Kentucky – the heart of the US coal mining industry.
His father is a coal miner.
His grandfather is retired from working the mines. An oxygen tank in the living room is a reminder of years underground; Black Lung disease has ravaged his chest and makes it difficult for him to breathe.
Despite the risks, Aaron would rather be running the roof bolt machine back in the mines than doing pretty much anything else. A smile lights up his face just talking about it, even after five years of hard labor. He says it’s like exploring a cave or something every day.
He would be in the mines now if he hadn’t been laid off in November.
At 32 years old, Aaron is starting over, feeling like he’s just gotten out of high school. He’s had a hard time finding a job that pays as well as the 50-60 hours a week he got from working the mines.
As a divorced single father, he had to ask his mom to take care of his 12-year-old son Steven while he moved in with his grandparents. He’s sold everything aside from his car. Aaron would rather stay in Harlan, but would leave for a good paying job – anything that could get him on his feet and his son home again.
In the meantime, he’s taking on part-time work as a security guard and has been offered another job at Southeastern Kentucky Rehabilitation Industries (SEKRI), an apparel manufacturer. He’s also considering going back to school so he can get a job in healthcare.
But his first love is the mines. He hopes things will pick up again in August and that his dad can help him find work. Still, he knows that his own son will not likely follow in his footsteps. That the place he calls home and the industry that defines it are changing.
“That’s the only thing keeping this town alive, is coal mining. If it goes down this will be a ghost town.”