A coal mining accident left him depressed and in ‘crippling’ pain. But this Utahn says the industry is worth saving.

“It’s a very, very, very rough industry. But I worked around a lot of really good people. It’s in your blood.”

Editor’s note • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for 24-hour support.

Cody Potter first entered a coal mine at 18 years old. His grandfather and most of his uncles worked in coal mines, and he always looked up to them. In Emery County, he says, mining was one of few job options available for high school graduates.

“It ran in the family,” Potter says, “and it was either the coal mines or the power plant.”

For the next 33 years, he would work in five different mines across Utah and Wyoming — until an accident left him with a life-altering diagnosis.

From his home in Huntington, Utah, Potter spoke with The Tribune about how injury, tragedy and counseling has shaped his views on coal mining and why it’s still worth saving a “dying industry.”

This Q&A with him has been edited for length and clarity.

Sara Weber: Can you tell me about what happened at your last mining job?

Cody Potter: I went to work at a coal mine in Carbon County, and that’s where I got injured. That ended my career in mining.

I was working on a belt line and destroyed the lower end of my back. I ended up pulling the sciatic nerve away from the support, and that’s how I ended up with what they call “Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.” Complex Regional Pain Syndrome typically knocks out one of your limbs. For me, it took my left leg out and movement of my left arm. For now I can walk, but I can’t walk far.

I’d never heard of complex regional pain before, but it’s also called the suicide disease. It’s miserable. And that’s why I use the miners program through the University of Utah for counseling once a month. I also get monthly lidocaine injections and, once every three months, I get spinal injections for my pain.

How has that impacted your mental health?

It’s very, very painful living with a damaged sciatic nerve. And I’m an outdoor person. I loved to coach baseball, basketball. I love to play softball — in the spring and summer, our mine played softball against the other mines. I love to fish the river and the lake. I love to hunt, horseback ride. Just to be out in God’s country. Just to have that taken from you, you know, it’s mind boggling.

To be honest with you, I’ve done a lot of counseling through the university. Suicide was right up there at the top of my mind. I’m not so much suicidal now. I’m on quite a bit of medication to handle the pain and those mental challenges. I’ve also been a Christian for about five years now, and I believe that I’m doing the best that I can do with the situation that I’ve been given. There are still times when I want to give up. But, for some reason, that sun comes up in the morning and it’s a new day.

How was your mental health back when you were in the mines?

It was 12-hour shifts seven days a week. When you’re on the long shifts, you start to get burned out.

We had some accidents here, too, that take a real toll. At Genwal [later named Crandall Canyon Mine], I had just barely left when the mine caved in and killed six. They’re still in there today. The mine rescue people went in to try to recover them, and it ended up killing three more. Some of my best friends that I worked with for 18 years are still in there.

I’m so sorry.

That’s the mining industry. It’s a very, very, very rough industry. But I worked around a lot of really good people. It’s in your blood. These guys become family, they become your brothers, your sisters in mining. We take care of one another. You look out for one another.

You’ve been through a lot, but it sounds like you still look back fondly on the work you did. Is that the case?

Yes, yes, yes. Don’t take this the wrong way. My mining career was excellent. It really was. I really enjoyed it.

Would you recommend this job to other people entering the workforce?

Oh, absolutely. The mining industry today is not like it was when I started out. Miners aren’t working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re working eight hours a day, five days a week. There’s not the mental stress that we went through when I started.

As far as the mines being safer, I think it’s improved a bunch.

Knowing what you know and having been through what you’ve been through, what advice do you have for someone interested in coal mining?

I think a lot of kids these days don’t want to work. They don’t want to get dirty. And it’s a dirty occupation. But for those who do: You do not have to work in an area in a situation that is unsafe. You have a mouth, you have the right to say, “No, I’m not going to work in that type of conditions, it’s not safe.” You have the right to talk to the safety director, you have the right to talk to your foreman about either getting help or finding a different way of doing something that maybe is not safe.

It can really be a good job. You could start out with a decent salary, with insurance, a really outstanding 401(k). I mean, how can you beat it?

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