ThE Charleston Gazette’s late publisher, W.E. “Ned” Chilton III, once predicted a future day when the Mountain State would have no underground miners — because robotic digging machines, controlled by operators at video screens on the surface, would do the dirty, dangerous work below.
His forecast seems to be coming true. Around the world, in all types of mining, automated machines are replacing human diggers. Forbes magazine calls them “the robots that will mine in hell.”
The magazine described a 7,000-foot-deep Arizona copper mine where temperatures are 175 degrees Fahrenheit and warm water drizzles constantly. Caterpillar and Komatsu are building “custom electric loaders, excavators and other robotic gear, equipped with thousands of sensors” to work in the hellish hole.
“The machines will find the ore, mine it, and transport it to the surface under the watchful eye of technicians hundreds of miles away,” the business magazine said.
Another report says China National Coal Group is using “completely deserted coal mining technology” at two mines. And Australia’s BHP (once Broken Hill Proprietary) is pushing a Next Generation Mining program that “includes autonomous drills and autonomous trucks.”
An NBC News report says: “From robotic drills to self-driving ore trucks, automation is bringing a new measure of safety to mines.” Human miners can’t be killed on the job if there are no human miners. Mining professor Bernard Jung predicts “fully automated ‘man-less’ mines that are completely operated by machines.”
“The Robots Have Descended on Trump Country” is the headline of a Dec. 13 New York Times report. It says the Trump administration’s tax cut for the wealthy “increased incentives to replace workers with robots.” Corporations now can write off the cost of machines immediately instead of depreciating them slowly over many years.
This change will hit blue-collar workers — not just in coal mining, but in manufacturing and other hard-hat industries — who have been devoted supporters of President Trump, it says. “One more robot ... reduces employment by about six workers.”
Mechanization already has taken a grim toll of West Virginia coal miners. After World War II, the state had 125,000 pick-and-shovel diggers, but machines cut the workforce to around 15,000 today — wiping out the livelihood of 110,000 families.
As automation takes over, and demand for coal continues to decline because of cheaper natural gas, it’s time for West Virginia to look to other areas where it can truly grow its economy and workforce.