“I had to get my first job (as a miner) a little deceptively. A lot of folks thought it was bad luck for a woman to be around a mine site at all, let alone work at one.”
Senator Robin L. Webb, Senate District 18 (Boyd, Carter and Greenup Counties, Kentucky); Grayson, Kentucky:
“[As a child] We had ponies, and horses, we had a farm where we had cattle, so I spent most of my time with my Dad and my grandpa shooting guns, plowing, gardening, working in hay, riding ponies, and fishing, and those kinds of things. I liked to read, liked to write poetry, liked to write. My grandmother did a lot of that, so I had a pretty normal childhood, normal to me, anyway. I was the kid that had the Tonka set out back rerouting the stream, so mining was always an interest of mine.
[In high school] I was an athlete. Back then you could play more than one sport, and I always showed horses. I’ve shown horses most of my life, so that continued. [Again], I stayed in the field as much as I could with Dad.
I have two mining degrees from Morehead State University, one in Underground Mine Safety, and one in Surface Mining Production. I worked underground in Martin County, and worked in Boyd County on surface jobs and underground. I was lucky that I worked in a company that gave me the opportunity to do that. I had to get my first job a little deceptively. A lot of folks thought it was bad luck for a woman to be around a mine site at all, let alone work at one.
At Morehead, I got the award for the most outstanding mining student. I had a teacher that worked for Ashland Coal, and he was in charge of co-ops. There was a coal company in Ashland, [and the operator] called my teacher, and said, ‘I want the best student you have for the co-op.’ [My teacher] said, ‘I’ve got one that’s the outstanding mining student.’ [The mine operator said] ‘Yeah, that’s what I want. You send him over. Who is it?’ [My teacher knew the operator] and said he knew it wouldn’t fly if he told him I was a girl, [so he told him my name was] Rob Webb.
I’d worked for another coal company here [and] I was making pretty good money doing little things for them. I had a pretty nice car, and I pulled up and opened the door. He told me later, ‘When I looked out that window, I said, Oh, my Lord, if this is Rob Webb, what have I got myself into?’ He told me later ([after] I promised not to sue or anything), ‘I gave you every job to make you quit. Everything I asked you to do, you’d do it, and want to do more. I couldn’t get rid of you. Then I just decided to keep you.’ (Laughs) I operated every kind of piece of equipment, I worked on every crew, and I had a lot of opportunities to learn about the business.
I was tickled to death. That was my four-year degree goal, and that’s where I felt safest. We had a safe mine, and everybody looked out for each other, but it’s an unnatural atmosphere and Mother Nature can trick you up pretty quick with a pocket of methane, or a spark from one of the pieces of equipment. A lot of things can happen underground. When you’re an underground miner, you knew that when you went in there, some days you might not come out. That’s something you have to accept, and your families have to accept. It’s just an inherently dangerous environment, but I always felt quite safe there, and quite comfortable.
Once I got in there everybody was a little leery [not knowing] if I could pull my weight, if I could do the job, but I did. I was treated with a great deal of respect, and the men taught me a lot. Of course, being a Webb from Johnson County, my grandpa was born in Van Lear, and a lot of the guys in Martin County had family that was Webbs, I was really more like family, so my experience probably wasn’t a normal one for a woman who was going into a mine like that.
I started working in the coal industry probably ’79. [Women in the mines] was sort of an anomaly at the time. I was working underground when [actress] Cheryl Ladd came, and they filmed ‘Kentucky Woman’ right across the hill. Our guys came back from a retraining where they’d met her, and they said [to me], ‘we met that little girl playing a coal miner, and she don’t weigh ninety pounds soaking wet. We told ‘em, we’ve got a blonde girl mining for us and she looks like a coal miner. She ought to be in the movie.’ I think there’s a compliment in there, but I wasn’t sure.
Larry Addington, from Elliott County, ended up being very successful in the mining industry. Larry was a friend of our family’s, a friend of mine. He had sold out his first coal company, and I was working for another one. Some days I would be out operating equipment, and I’d look up on the hill, and I’d see his truck. Then, I’d see him socially in town, and I’d say, ‘Larry, did I see you up on the hill watching me the other day?’ He said, ‘Yeah, sometimes I get to thinking about you out there operating equipment in the strip pit and I’d have to go see it for myself.’ And we’d have a few laughs.
I was graduating [with my undergrad degree], and he said, ‘You need to think about going to law school.’ I didn’t have much interest in that. I was looking at geology or hydrology, or something like that to stay near the mining industry. He said, ‘I’m getting tired of training lawyers about the coal industry.’ He encouraged me to go to law school because I knew every area of production, maintenance, safety, and I had the opportunity to actually operate heavy equipment from rock trucks, front-end loaders, and underground, I was a scoop operator.
I passed the bar in 1986. My first job was being Environmental Prosecutor for the state in the surface mining [division]. I was the youngest in surface mine litigation, and eventually went to Hazard to represent a lot of major companies there in a firm [and] had my own practice. The full circle of the Addington story though was when I came back, he hired me as his General Counsel. At that time we were the fourth largest coal producer in the nation, and had operations in eight states. I felt like his advice was good, and I give him all the credit for my legal career, which led to my political career. Larry Addington had a huge influence on my life, and all that rushed back to me a few weeks ago when he passed away. He gave a lot of people a lot of jobs for a lot of years in East Kentucky. His heart was really here.
My Dad was an optometrist in Grayson, and he was Fish and Wildlife Commissioner here, and represented the area. I was in the House of Representatives for ten years, and I’ve been a State Senator here since 2009, and of course, I’m on energy committees and natural resources committees in our General Assembly, and then nationally, too, I serve on a few. I still stay involved in the energy industry.
I’ve been offered jobs doing international coal litigation, moving from Pennsylvania to Colorado, but this is home for me. My family came in with the Boones, and there’s nowhere else that holds the heartstrings for me. This is where I want to be.
[Coal has] gone downward in a spiral. We’ve lost so many jobs. I love working in the coal industry, and made good money. We did it in a responsible manner. You can mine coal in a responsible manner, and that’s important. I’m a conservationist, too, so historically there’s a little conflict there. But you know, I tear up driving down 23, when the way of life has changed so much, and I don’t know what the future holds. I know from a global energy standpoint, there’s nothing else that can replace [coal]. Energy diversity is something I’ve always been an advocate of, even when I was making a living in the coal industry. Oil and gas are fossil fuels, as well. They’re going to have their share of environmental battles, too.
Wind and solar can’t pull the weight of the grid with any consistency and reliability. Coal will eventually come back to a stabilization of the market. The demand is there, if we’re allowed to mine it from an environmental agenda standpoint. The other countries across the way, they want it, and the export market is there, and will be there.
Coal is sort of predictable in the way that they approach it in certain areas. Nobody wanted to plan ahead, and that’s been the cultural change that we have to work with. When I was a young lawyer in Southeast Kentucky, we created a group [and] we talked about it every year. We were trying to find ways for sustainability and diversity, [to] strike that balance. We talked about tourism then, talked about other things. Tech wasn’t such a hot item back then, when we were carrying cellphone bags. Some of the same people are still there, and we’ve got some political clout behind it, and money, and a real need. But now we’ve waited till the need is so great, we’ve got a hole to dig out of if we’re going to retain our people that we have here, let alone attract any more in.
I think we’re on the right track with broadband. We have to have that. That’s the technology infrastructure. Unless we get that capacity, we’re just talking, so we’re working on that at the federal and state level [and] we’re making progress. I was there when the first elk hit the ground up there. There’s mixed reviews on that, but the bottom line is, an economy in adventure tourism, like trail rides [can be successful]. We’ve got music, the Country Music Highway [and] venues, so we’re working on ways to connect artists, venues and fans. I think hemp is a good opportunity for Eastern Kentucky. I’ve worked on that for over a decade. Then again, nothing is going to be the salvation. It’s just going to be the pieces to a puzzle that we’re working on one by one. We’ve inventoried and inventoried, and we know what we’ve got. Now to put it all together before everybody leaves.
I don’t take much offense to the stereotypes. I’m liable to take pride in them. I just bought a new truck, and I asked Mom, ‘Does this look like I’m a big redneck?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yeah, it does, and you are.’ And that’s okay with me. I don’t want to start categorizing and saying, ‘Oh, that offends me, and that offends me.’ I just usually kind of laugh, and go on. I like my guns. I’ve got my Bible. I’ve got all that. As a lawyer, yeah, I’ve got an accent. Yeah, sometimes they take me lightly. Sometimes they think I’m some idiot from East Kentucky and they treat you different. Usually we trick them pretty good, so that’s okay with me.
Losing my Dad was one of the worst things that I’ve gone through. I miss him every day. But again, I think of the cultural shift lately when I drive up 23, and just can’t fathom the thought of these kids. I know the poverty. I know there’s a drug problem, because they can’t go to the mine opening and have any hope of getting a job. This is an incidental coal economy up here because we have a steel mill, and we have all that, and all those good paying jobs. You can’t just not go to school, and walk out and get a job anymore. Schools are expensive. If you’ve got a drug problem now, you’re not going to get in school. You’re not going to flourish in school, and there are not enough treatment facilities.
It’s a cultural shift that makes me the saddest, knowing that these kids can’t graduate from high school, and have any hope of making a decent living drug free. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but it’s just sad that the opportunity is not there as much. Maybe we sold them short in some ways, because it is so desperate down there. But when I go and see the inactivity, or the change of culture, whether it’s downtown, or going to the convenience store and not seeing any coal miners at shift change, it saddens me, and I know that it’s never going to be the same.
I get a lot of joy out of my children. I’m real proud of them [and they] are real good. I’ve got a daughter [and] she’s married and lives in Virginia, and my son’s at Morehead State University, my Alma Mater. I take a lot of [personal] joy in them. As far as professionally, every time I win my election, I’m just proud to serve. That’s a big accomplishment for me, my people having that much faith in me. They don’t always agree with me, it’s going to happen, but they keep electing me, and [it] means a lot to me that they do.
I got an email a couple of days ago from an environmental lawyer. We had been against each other [in the past] and he said, ‘I’m sitting here listening to a KET committee meeting, back when you first got elected [and] you were a young Representative talking about telecommunications; keeping [and] protecting land lines, protecting the elderly, protecting vulnerable people in rural communities, and not letting them get left behind or left out, especially in the land lines, telecom arguments.’ And he said, ‘Thank you. You have always represented those who didn’t have a voice.’
One of my former seatmates called me The Queen of Lost Causes. I’ve been called the voice of the inmates, and that’s fine with me, too. The elderly living up the head of a holler, drug addicts, or somebody that society’s forgotten, that’s who I protect. (Overcome with emotion) That’s the way that I want to be remembered.”