The average miner underground in West Virginia produces three tons of coal per hour. The average miner at a strip mine in Wyoming produces nearly 28. That is not the fault of the miners but of the mines’ geology.

Appalachian coal mines have a size problem.

This is different from the well-documented problems of the industry itself. Yes, cheap natural gas has become the go-to fuel for generating electricity. And pollution regulations have made coal-fired plants less profitable. Exports have waned as China and other countries mine more of their own coal, and renewable options such as wind and solar have become more practical and widely used.

Electricity generation

2 trillion kilowatt hours

Coal

Natural gas—

1

Nuclear

Hydroelectric

Wind

0

1950

2016

Coal production and consumption

1.5 billion tons

Production—

0.75

—Consumption

0

1950

2016

Electricity generation

Coal production and consumption

1.5 billion tons

2 trillion kilowatt hours

Coal

Production—

Natural gas—

1

0.75

—Consumption

Nuclear

Hydroelectric

Wind

0

0

1950

2016

1950

2016

But coal still accounts for 30 percent of the electricity generated in this country. The problem for Appalachia is that when the market is squeezed, its mines often can’t produce as much as the vast strip mines out west, where coal is easier to access and the machines that harvest it can be as big as engineers can build.  

The 16 mines in the Powder River Basin produce 45 percent of the country’s coal, but only employ 10 percent of coal-mine workers.

 

Appalachian mines employ 56 percent of coal workers, but produce 24 percent of the coal.

Share of all U.S. coal

Production

Employment

50%

40

30

20

10

Powder River

Basin

Appalachian

Basin

Illinois

Basin

10

Uinta

Basin

Western

region

Interior

region

Share of all U.S. coal …

50%

Production

Employment

40

The 16 mines in the Powder River Basin produce 45 percent of the country’s coal, but only employ 10 percent of coal-mine workers.

Appalachian mines employ 56 percent of coal workers, but produce 24 percent of the coal.

30

20

10

Powder River

Basin

Appalachian

Basin

Uinta

Basin

Western

region

Interior

region

Illinois

Basin

“It’s an economy of scale,” said Jürgen Brune, professor of mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. “Smaller spaces require smaller equipment, and that reduces the productivity and the amount of coal you can get with the same number of miners.”

Wyoming strip mines: Biggest production

3 MILES

North Antelope Rochelle Mine

MONT.

S.D.

WYOMING

|

North Antelope

Cheyenne

COLO.

UTAH

MONT.

S.D.

WYOMING

|

North Antelope

Cheyenne

COLO.

UTAH

Antelope Creek—

North Antelope Rochelle Mine

Thunder Basin

National Grassland

3 MILES

NORTH

MONT.

S.D.

WYOMING

|

North Antelope

Cheyenne

COLO.

UTAH

North Antelope Rochelle Mine

Antelope Creek—

Thunder Basin

National Grassland

3 MILES

NORTH

Forty-five percent of the coal produced in the United States in 2015 came from 16 mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

Powder River Basin

surface mines

Very large-scale operations, with

coal seams as thick as 70 feet or more

that lie relatively close to the surface.

Giant dragline excavators remove rock

and dirt to expose and extract the coal.

Thick coal seam,

close to surface

The coal seam there is thicker than 70 feet in places, far larger than the seam running through Appalachia, which tops out at around 13 feet. The coal is less than 200 feet below mostly flat land, an ideal scenario for strip mining, Brune said.

The key piece of equipment in strip mining is a mobile dragline excavator, which scrapes away long rows of soil and rock (“overburden” in mining terms) to expose the coal seam below. The largest have bodies the size of 10-story buildings, 360-foot crane-like booms and dangling buckets big enough to scoop 100 tons of earth at a time. Shovels fill enormous dump trucks with 400 tons of coal per truckload.

Dump trucks used at the North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming are about 25 feet tall. The boom of the dragline excavator looming in the background soars hundreds of feet in the air. (Peabody Energy)

The giant dragline can be operated with as few as three people, and each truck requires just one driver. Of course there are many more mine jobs other than excavating, but these mammoth machines are a big reason that Powder River Basin strip mines produce 45 percent of the country’s coal with just 10 percent of the country’s coal-mining workforce.

Mountaintop removal mines: Less coal, more complications

PA.

OHIO

W.VA.

Hobet 21 Mine

VA.

—Mud R.

NORTH

2 MILES

Hobet 21 Surface Mine

PA.

OHIO

W.VA.

Hobet 21 Mine

KY.

—Mud R.

VA.

TN.

N.C.

Hobet 21 Surface Mine

Little Coal R.—

Madison

2 MILES

PA.

OHIO

—Big Horse Cr.

W.VA.

Hobet 21 Mine

KY.

VA.

—Mud R.

TN.

N.C.

Hobet 21 Surface Mine

Little Coal R.—

—Mud R.

Madison

2 MILES

The easiest-to-reach coal in Appalachia has been removed by generations of miners, so what remains requires more work to harvest. On the plus side, Appalachian coal can produce up to 80 percent more heat than coal from out west. But it also gives off more sulfur dioxide, so plants that use it need to have pricey scrubbers to trap the pollution.

Appalachian mountaintop

removal surface mines

Smaller footprints than the huge western

mines. Mountain peaks are leveled to expose the coal, and rubble is pushed into valleys. Appalachian coal seams are thinner, between five and 13 feet thick.

Thinner coal seam,

close to tops of

mountains

Because of the topography and the smaller coal seam, Appalachian surface mines are smaller and less productive than the huge western mines.

To create a surface mine in Appalachia, miners often remove the top of a mountain to expose the coal. Excavators push the rubble into the valleys below, sometimes burying or polluting streams. Mountaintop mining is the most controversial type of coal mining.

These mines use dragline excavators as well, but the space, terrain and the smaller coal seam limit their size. The average surface mine in West Virginia produces 10 tons of coal per man-hour, far less than half the Wyoming average of 27.5 tons.

Hobet 21 mine site

Areas already mined are considerably flatter than the surrounding unmined areas

Mud R.

Madison

Unmined

Approximate extent of mined areas as

of 2003, when detailed elevation data

was last available.

Hobet 21 mine site

Areas already mined are considerably flatter than the surrounding unmined areas

Little Coal R.

Elevation (feet)

Mud R.

1,500

1,100

625

Madison

Unmined

Approximate extent of mined areas as of 2003,

when detailed elevation data was last available

A well-managed mine will be well reclaimed, Brune said, and its land may be more useful for agriculture and other purposes than it was before. But federally required restoration and cleanup of these mine sites can be costly, and the results have been mixed. How and whether companies comply is the subject of much debate and litigation.

Topography is supposed to be returned to “approximate original contours,” but exemptions are often granted for agriculture and commercial development. A 2016 Duke University study found that portions of West Virginia are now up to 40 percent flatter than they were before mountaintop mining began in the 1970s.

A view of the now-defunct Hobet 21 mine near Madison, W. Va., in 2008. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

The sprawling Hobet 21 mine, which closed in 2015, was one of the largest surface mines in West Virginia. Some of the first areas that were mined have been reforested, but water pollution is a problem in other places, according to a Duke University study. Companies that operated the mine in recent years went bankrupt, leaving much of the original restoration plan undone.

Underground mines: Less efficient, biggest employers

Penn.

Ohio

W. Va.

Pittsburgh

D.C. at

same scale

PENNSYLVANIA

Washington

—Ohio R.

Enlow Fork Mine

Areas

already

mined

Harvey Mine

Unmined

reserves

Bailey

Mine

WEST VIRGINIA

10 MILES

Morgantown

Pittsburgh

Penn.

Ohio

W. Va.

PENNSYLVANIA

OHIO

Washington

—Ohio R.

Enlow Fork Mine

Wheeling

Harvey Mine

Areas already mined—

Unmined

reserves

|

Waynesburg

Bailey

Mine

D.C. at

same scale

WEST VIRGINIA

Morgantown

10 MILES

Pittsburgh

Penn.

Ohio

W. Va.

PENNSYLVANIA

Washington

Ohio R.—

Enlow Fork Mine

Wheeling

OHIO

Harvey Mine

Areas already mined—

Unmined

reserves

|

Waynesburg

D.C. at

same scale

Bailey

Mine

WEST VIRGINIA

Morgantown

10 MILES

More than 4 in 10 U.S. mines are underground, nearly all in Appalachia and the Illinois Basin, and they account for 61 percent of U.S. coal mining employees.

This is where scale really comes into play. While the mines may spread over an enormous underground area, tunnels are built only as tall as the coal seam, Brune said.

Underground mines

Most complex and labor-intensive. Miners and their machines must fit into narrow tunnels drilled far below the surface. Long conveyor belts and rail lines carry coal to processing plants at the surface.

 

Tunnel—

Thinner coal seam,

deep underground

There is no room for mammoth excavators. The two most common types of mining machines used underground are longwall miners, which shave coal off the face of the coal seam with each pass — a little like slicing brisket — and continuous miners, which burrow forward into the coal with spiked, rotating blades. Most coal seams are less than 10 feet tall; a continuous miner can mine as low as 42 inches, Brune said.

Shuttle cars and miles-long conveyor belts carry the coal to processing plants at the surface.

The Bailey mine complex in western Pennsylvania is the largest underground mining complex in the country. Its three mines cover an area nearly four times of the District of Columbia, and they employ about 2,000 people. But the complex produced about one-fifth as much coal as Wyoming’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine in 2015.

Average number of employees, by mine, 2015

50

100

500

1,000

Surface mines

Underground mines

Pittsburgh

PENN.

Bailey mine complex

Morgantown

W. VA.

OHIO

NORTH

Charleston

Hobet 21

Ashland

Logan

KY.

VA.

50 MILES

TENN.

Coal jobs in the Appalachian Basin

CENTRAL

NORTHERN

25,000

Underground

mines

20,000

15,000

10,000

Surface

 

5,000

0

2001

’08

2015

2001

’08

2015

Average number of employees, by mine, 2015

Pittsburgh

50

100

500

1,000

PENN.

Surface mines

Underground mines

Bailey mine complex

Morgantown

50 MILES

Clarksburg

OHIO

WEST VIRGINIA

Ashland

Charleston

Hobet 21

KENTUCKY

Logan

Beckley

Pikeville

Bluefield

VIRGINIA

Coal jobs in the Appalachian Basin

CENTRAL

NORTHERN

25,000

20,000

Underground

mines

15,000

10,000

Surface

mines

5,000

0

2001

’08

2015

2001

’08

2015

Average number of employees, by mine, 2015

Pittsburgh

Bailey mine complex

50

100

500

1,000

PENNSYLVANIA

Surface mines

Underground mines

Morgantown

MD.

50 MILES

Clarksburg

OHIO

WEST VIRGINIA

Ashland

Coal jobs in the Appalachian Basin

Charleston

CENTRAL

NORTHERN

Hobet 21

25,000

KENTUCKY

20,000

Logan

Underground

mines

Beckley

Pikeville

15,000

10,000

Bluefield

Surface

mines

5,000

VIRGINIA

0

2001

’08

2015

2001

’08

2015

Although Trump administration policies may boost the coal industry, experts say that probably won’t be enough to make less productive mines worth the effort. Entire areas that depended on underground mining may need to come up with a post-coal plan.

For instance, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a coal and agriculture magnate, hopes to lure big employers to a residential and business park on nearly 12,000 acres of flat land not far from highways and an airport in Boone County. The site is called the Rock Creek Development Park, and it has raised hopes for economic revival in the area.

Its former name was the Hobet 21 Mine.

Source: Energy Information Administration; Google Earth Engine imagery; U.S. Geological Survey; CNX Coal Resources

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