In Focus: The Impact of Technology on SE Ohio Coal

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A Brief History of Coal in Southeast Ohio
The existence of coal in Ohio was noted in 1755 in the publication, A Map of the Middle British Colonies in America, which made note of “coals” along the Hockhocking River (present-day Hocking River). From its beginning in 1800, Ohio’s coal production grew steadily, but very slowly. Ohio’s early coal miners cut and loaded coal entirely by hand and moved the coal to local markets by wagons, carts, flatboats, and canal boats.

As Ohio’s railroad system grew, Ohio experienced a transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy. By the late 1800's, mechanized mining equipment had been successfully introduced into many of Ohio’s underground coalmines. Following the Great Depression, coal production continued to grow, reaching a record of 55 million tons in 1970.

This increase in Ohio’s coal production was due primarily to larger, more efficient surface-mining equipment, such as the “Mountaineer” shovel and the “Big Muskie” dragline, and improved methods of transportation, such as conveyors and 20- and 40-ton trucks.

Since 1970, Ohio’s annual coal production has declined to less than half of its peak. The increasing regulation of surface-mine activity, reclamation, and health and safety issues all contributed to the decline, but the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970 and its amendments in 1977 and 1990, were the larger reasons.  They placed stringent controls on the sulfur dioxide emissions from burned coal.

In a House Committee meeting last fall, Mike Carey, President of the Ohio Coal Association, faulted the government for job loss saying, “Our industry is facing an unprecedented onslaught of new regulations that are, simply put, designed to eliminate America's coal industry and the thousands of jobs associated with coal.”

Coal Production in Athens County
Athens County produced 92,173 short tons of coal in 2008, according to the Ohio Coal Association. The Buckingham Coal Company, located in Glouster, is the only underground mine in Athens County and accounts for a large percentage of that production.

There are also several surface mines in the county. Oxford Resource Partners owns surface coal mines in Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Ed Spiker, Director of Communications for the company, describes surface coal mining as “going in and literally scraping off the dirt and putting it in one pile and saving it, taking the coal out and then putting that dirt back, and taking the coal and moving it to the electric power plants.”

According to the Ohio Coal Association:
–    Coal accounts for 95 percent of the nations fossil energy reserves
–    Ohio ranks 7th in coal reserves with 23.7 billion short tons.
–    Ohio ranks third nationally in the consumption of coal, following Texas and Indiana.
–    More than 87-percent of Ohio’s electricity comes from coal
–    The Ohio coal industry directly employs more than 3,000 people, and studies show there's an average of 11 spin-off jobs for each of those 3000 jobs.
–    Every American uses an average of 3.8 tons of coal each year in energy.

Bigger is Better
New technology in the industry has led to more efficient production. In 1980, the average miner produced 1.93 tons of coal per hour. Today, the average miner produces 7.10 tons per hour.

“With technology comes improvements and, certainly with the equiptment that's being used today,” Ohio Coal Association President Carey said, “It's far superior than the equiptment that was being used five, ten, fifiteen years ago.”

Companies in Southeast Ohio now utilize bigger trucks, weight scales, and hydraulic shovels to complete the same tasks they once performed by hand. The weight scales have been especially useful in making sure each truck that leaves the mine is carrying its full capacity of coal. With the advent of larger, hydraulic shovels, surface miners are able to access coal deep in the ground.

Chris Walton, Vice-President of Sands Hill Coal Company, acknowledges the change saying, “The equipment has gotten a lot bigger. A lot of the things we're mining now were picked over in the 50's with their equipment and couldn't be mined then because there was too much cover on them. We're able to go back now and get the coal that's on the same land.”

“It’s just like a video game, and you've got somebody sitting with a joystick and he maneuvers into a huge hill where there's coal,” says Ed Spiker of Oxford Resource Partners.

More Training, Safer Mines

In addition to output, the upgrades in technology have had a major impact on the safety at coal mine sites. In 2009, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources opened a Mine Safety Training Center in Cadiz.

Trainees use a mine simulator to receive safety training in a smoke-filled environment which gives miners real-life experience of how to escape a mining emergency. The simulator also provides hands-on fire fighting exercises and prepares new miners for work in underground mines.

With the advent of safety regulations and enforcement, mining accidents and fatalities are down dramatically since the 1980s. “You don't have a productive and well-run mine unless you have a safe mine,” says Carey.

Cleaner Coal: The Future
With stricter environmental regulations, cleaning up coal is the only way to keep Appalachia’s oldest industry in business. The mission of the Ohio Coal Development Office is to reduce the environmental impact of coal usage, support university research, and maximize the use of Ohio coal.

Ohio University’s Coal Research Center is currently devoted to finding new alternatives for coal.

“What we're doing here in the Coal Test Center is finding ways to take coal and convert it into something cleaner, mainly sin gas. And then using that gas as an energy source for producing electricity. And we're using fuel cells for that energy production,” says Dr. David Bayless, Director of Ohio University’s Coal Research Center.

According to the OCDO, “Since 1979, sulfur dioxide levels are down 76 percent, carbon monoxide levels are down 75 percent and nitrogen oxide levels are down 27 percent in Ohio.”

Coal may even be more important in the future than it is now. According to the OCDO, “As more coal is used as a feedstock for other forms of clean energy, its importance will be enhanced.”

As coal has been a staple in Southeastern Ohio’s history, it is also likely to be a huge part of its future. “Cheap, affordable coal is what powers the nation's manufacturing base and keeps the lights on for millions of America families. The low cost electricity that coal provides is a staple of American life and is essential to many Americans' standard of living,” says Carey.

To locate coal mines in Ohio, visit the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.