The Future In The Past

They opened a coal mine in Pennsylvania last week.  It’s the first new coal mine opened in the area in as long as people can remember.

The Corsa Coal Company decided to open the Acosta mine, located about 60 miles south of Pittsburgh, last August.  It made the decision to open the mine because demands for metallurgical coal used by the steel industry, and cuts in coal production in China, have caused the prices for such coal to skyrocket.  Metallurgical coal is a special kind of coal, distinct from coal used for other purposes, and represents about 5 to 10 percent of the coal industry.

1024x1024Even though the decision to open the mine came before the last presidential election, President Trump has touted the opening of the mine as reflective of the new approach taken to coal in his administration.  Corsa’s chief executive said that Trump’s election has made the whole coal industry more optimistic.  He said “The war on coal is over,” and added that “Easing the regulatory burden, lowering taxes, stimulating infrastructure spending, balancing out the interest of economic growth versus environmental policy — it’s very good for coal.”  Corsa believes that if it can keep its costs low, it can compete with any company in the world in coal production.

I view the opening of a new coal mine in Pennsylvania with mixed emotions.  The past practices of the coal industry have left real scars in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or West Virginia, both on the landscape and, in some instances, on people.  At the same time, I am happy for the people of rural western Pennsylvania who have been desperate to find work and some cause for optimism.  It’s no surprise that the new mine has been bombarded with hundreds of job applications for the 100 positions that will be created, and that the mine is being praised as a lifeline for the local economy.

It’s odd that, even though we have moved well into the 21st century, the American economy is still looking at things like coal mining — work that has been going on for centuries — as a element of future job production.  I just hope that the coal industry has learned from the past as it moves forward into the future.

Coal Curse

The tragic mine accident that has killed 25 West Virginia miners and left another four unaccounted for and trapped far below the surface is just another reminder of the curse of coal.

In southeastern Ohio, eastern Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, coal is an abundant natural resource that has been a staple of the economy for more than a century.  It can provide power and heat and light and can help to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  It can provide steady, good-paying jobs that cannot be exported overseas for people who do not have college degrees.  It can help to bring needed cash and investment to poor areas.

And yet, the curse of coal is that it is challenging to extract.  Underground mining poses risks of mine explosions, floods and collapses.  The linked CNN article includes a sobering chart of death tolls in American mining disasters, accidents,  and collapses.  Even more appalling is the coal mining safety record in China, where accidents seem to happen routinely.  Indeed, last year 2,631 coal miners died in mining accidents in China. Surface mining, which used to be called strip mining, poses its own challenges.  That method of removal of coal has had a profound environmental impact in southeastern Ohio, where strip mining — particularly in areas where early methods were used — left behind a grim, scarred, denuded landscape with tremendous erosion and surface water problems.  Many strip-mined areas have not fully recovered, years later, and many look as though they never will.

In Appalachia, coal is a blessing and a curse.