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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2006 : Guest Column

Guest Column

A Friend and a Foe
Although plagued with a dark history coal still remains a part of the United States' energy future.

by Dennis Walsh

Following the Civil War, the expansion of the coal trade accelerated as railroads assumed the burden of carrying coal to market and opening up previously inaccessible fields. They did this by purchasing coal tracts directly and leasing them to subsidiary firms, or by opening their own mines.

Cities were bursting at the seams with people needing fuel, and factories were hungry for the energy provided by coal taken from the earth through narrow, dark and often dangerous underground tunnels. Early coal mining was a risky occupation. Roof falls, moving cars, coal bursts, bumps and asphyxiation sent miners to an early grave. Methane and coal dust explosions claimed most lives. As miners sought to remove more coal, shafts were dug deeper below the water line.

By 1900, the American coal industry was a national endeavor that raised 57 million tons of anthracite and 212 million tons of bituminous coal. Some coal firms grew to immense proportions. Mining provided iron for steel making; salt for food; coal for fuel; and gold, silver and diamonds for jewelry.

More than a few thousand workers were claimed by mining disasters between the years 1907-1909. The worst mining disaster in American history occurred in Monongah, W.V., on Dec. 6, 1907. A total of 362 men and boys lost there lives, leaving 250 widows and more than 1,000 children without support. A dynamite blast gone wrong, the explosion was thought to have been caused by the ignition of “black damp”—otherwise known as methane. This in turn ignited the highly flammable coal dust.

Mining widows told tales of husbands, brothers, sons and others trapped in the earth. Thirteen days after the accident, an official federal government report on mining accidents and deaths was released.
In comparison to the increase in mining accidents in the United States, European mining accidents had steadily decreased, and this was considered the result of government intervention in these countries. In 1909, the Engineering and Mining Journal stated the accident showed lack of efficiency, and the ensuing loss of productivity would result in lack of profitability. The Progressive Movement, seeking economic, political and moral reforms, turned its interest toward the coal mining industry. The Progressive Movement sought government regulations to improve working conditions in coal mines. Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910. The Bureau encouraged the establishment of safety procedures in mines. We’ve come a long way since then.

Coal provided a cheap and efficient source of power for steam engines, furnaces and forges across the United States, spurring innovations in mine technology, energy consumption and transportation. By the beginning of the 20th century, it became a necessity of everyday life. Long-abandoned mines and mine-tailing piles are still degrading watersheds throughout the country, often with no responsible parties available to pay for cleanup. Sometimes forgotten, often underappreciated, but always available—the smoky air and sooty landscape of industrial America owed a great deal to the growth of the nation’s coal industry.

In the United States today, coal is limited to electricity generation accounting for more than 50 percent of our annual electric generation. It’s cheap, and the price is stable compared to natural gas. The United States has enough known reserves of coal—some 250-300 billion tons—to last at least 250 years. American coal mines produce about 1.1 billion tons of coal each year. Almost all of the new coal plant proposals are older-generation technologies.

Although plentiful and available, coal can be ugly if left unchecked with inadequate emissions control. Coal can produce smog and low-lying ozone, and mercury linked to disorders in the kidneys and the nervous, digestive and respiratory systems. Mining coal can also be a messy business, carving scars into the earth, releasing clouds of dust and leaving behind sources of acidic water. Coal plants generate more than 130 million tons a year of combustion waste—fly ash, bottom ash, scrubber sludge—that is laced with toxic metals like arsenic and mercury, and pumped into holding ponds and abandoned mines, where it can sometimes leak into aquifers and drinking water. Coal plants are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the United States, meaning that if we’re going to get a handle on global warming, we’ll have to get a handle on coal.

One of the toughest turnaround jobs in American industry has been the effort to change the perception of coal from an industrial relic of the 19th century to an energy source for the 21st century. There is nothing pretty about coal. Miners are still being trapped when mines collapse, and the American Lung Association estimates that 24,000 people die prematurely each year from power-plant pollution.

The coal industry knows that as much as Americans may love a cheap kilowatt, they are not going to support burning coal if it results in people suffering miserable deaths. Nothing has been more important to the comeback of coal than the safety improvements in mining. The industry works overtime to suggest that coal mining today has nothing in common with its dark and exploitative past. The old days of breaker boys (children who picked rocks out of the coal) and methane explosions are gone, the coal industry argues, and mining today is safe, well-paid and professional.

These technologies do represent advances as evidenced by the fact that emissions from coal utilities have been reduced by more than 30 percent in the past two decades, while electricity generated from coal has increased by approximately 35 percent. According to one coal industry Web site, working in a coal mine today is as safe as working in a grocery store. Plants can tame ash and other particulates with electrostatic precipitators or fabric filters. So-called selective catalytic reduction equipment can reduce NOx emissions. Utilities are testing newer technologies, such as activated carbon injection, to reduce mercury emissions. But none of these methods reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Any new coal plant needs to be a coal gasification plant at which the carbon can be captured and stored.

For some, coal mining still remains a dirty and dangerous business. But one thing is certain: Coal will be part of the energy future of the United States. It’s critical that we address environmental issues now.

Dennis Walsh has worked for companies such as Levi Strauss and Indy Racing. He has a great interest in environmental issues and the history behind them. He can be reached at

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