Coal leaves Pa. scarred but in business

8,600 work in mining, down from peak of 375,000 during World War I

August 22, 2002|By Tom Avril | Tom Avril,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Once, coal employed one out of every 20 people in Pennsylvania. It heated homes, powered steam locomotives and fueled the Industrial Revolution, making the state an economic powerhouse.

These days, barely 8,600 people work in or around the mines, down from a peak of more than 375,000 during World War I. Total production is barely a quarter of what it was back then, and Pennsylvania has slipped from first to fourth among coal-producing states.

The state is scarred with abandoned mines and contaminated rivers that could cost billions to clean, and utility officials predict that new air-quality regulations will weaken the industry further.

But the obituary for coal has been written before - when steam locomotives gave way to diesel, when coal furnaces gave way to oil and natural gas, when the domestic steel industry plummeted.

And each time coal found a way to stick around.

"Coal has never been healthier than it is right now," said Wyona Coleman, head of the mining committee for the state's Sierra Club chapter. "They just moan and groan and say, `You'll put us out of business.' Yeah, I wish."

Cheap and plentiful

The reason for coal's staying power?

It is cheap. And there's plenty of it.

The mining of coal from Pennsylvania's rich veins is more efficient and, notwithstanding the accident last month in Somerset County, safer than ever.

Mightier machines and better technology have helped boost production by more than 15 percent since 1991, most of it going to power plants that meet the region's growing thirst for electricity.

Computers help companies plan their mode of attack. Instead of the old pick and shovel, workers use giant automated excavators to clear out a swath 10,000 feet long by pushing buttons. Once among the most dangerous professions, coal-mining now causes few fatalities.

Coal mining used to kill more than 1,000 Pennsylvania men a year - the deadliest year was 1907, with 1,514 deaths - but in recent years, mining deaths number one or two a year. (That's partly because there are fewer miners overall, but nevertheless the rate of deaths per million tons mined is about one-600th of what it once was.)

Yet to hear some people in the utility industry tell it, coal is an imperiled industry. Because of new air-pollution restrictions, they note, almost all new power plants in Pennsylvania burn natural gas for fuel.

"Coal is simply too much of a risk in the eye of the investor," said Douglas Biden, president of the Electric Power Generation Association in Harrisburg. "There are just too many environmental things coming down the pike."

But environmental groups note that many of the existing coal-fired power plants will be here for decades to come, and though their operators will need to install scrubbers and other pollution controls, coal will continue to be a relatively cheap, plentiful source of energy.

Anthracite, the hard coal of Eastern Pennsylvania that was used for heating homes, hit its production peak during World War I when the state mined more than 100 million tons. That marked the beginning of a long decline, as anthracite was eventually replaced in most homes by oil and natural gas.

But strong demand continued for bituminous coal, the soft variety from Western Pennsylvania mines, such as the one in Somerset County.

Demand faltered after World War II, as coal-powered locomotives gave way to diesel trains, yet the mining industry remained strong because soft coal is used in the manufacture of steel.

Then with the decline of the domestic steel industry and increased recycling efforts, power plants picked up some of the slack.

Technology advances

Improvements in automated excavating equipment have enabled to industry to meet the electricity demands of the Computer Age.

"Technology has advanced so far that computers and machines are replacing miners," said George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association.

It remains to be seen what impact the various clean-air rules will have on coal production.

Emissions from power plants are blamed for breathing problems and other health problems, and Southeastern Pennsylvania has some of the dirtiest air in the country.

The Clean Air Act of 1990 mandated reductions in sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, and in nitrogen oxides, which contributes to smog. Both can be reduced with pollution-control devices, although another option is for power plants to buy low-sulfur coal.

Pennsylvania's coal is relatively high in sulfur, compared with that of Wyoming, which has long since taken over as the nation's leading coal producer.

On the horizon

On the horizon are proposals to limit the emissions of mercury, a toxic metal that causes neurological illness. Coal-fired power plants are the nation's leading source of airborne mercury.

Less likely, though strongly urged by environmentalists, are reductions in another by-product of burning coal: carbon dioxide, a "greenhouse gas" blamed for global warming.

Aside from the impact on air, acid drainage from abandoned mines is considered the largest source of water pollution in the state.

Since 1967, Pennsylvania and the federal government have spent about $500 million to fix environmental damage wrought by abandoned mines, yet more than $15 billion of reclamation work remains to be done.

Coleman, the Sierra Club official, thinks coal will be around for some time.

"It's much cheaper than natural gas, cheaper than oil, cheaper than nuclear," Coleman said. "It is really cheap energy ... and they're going to be producing more and more."

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