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Title: Mining Coal
Level: Secondary
KERA Goals:

Background Information-- How is coal mined?

As was the case 50 years ago, most coal is produced from two major types of mines-- underground and surface.  But the methods for recovering coal from the earth have undergone drastic changes in the past 25 years, as a consequence of technological advances.

Fifty years ago when most coal mining was done manually, underground mines accounted for 96 percent of the coal produced each year.  Today, almost 60 percent is produced from surface mines.  Most underground mines in the United States are located east of the Mississippi River, although there are some in the West, particularly in Utah and Colorado.

More than two-thirds of the coal produced underground is extracted by continuous mining machines in the room-and-pillar method.  The continuous mining machine contains tungsten bits on a revolving cylinder. The continuous miner breaks the coal from the face and then conveys it to a waiting shuttle car which transports it to the conveyor belt to be moved to the surface.  No blasting is needed.  After advancing a specified distance, the continuous miner is backed out and roof bolts are put in place.  The process is repeated until the coal seam is mined.
Another method, called longwall mining, accounts for about 20 percent of production.   This method involves pulling a cutting machine across a 400 to 600 foot long face (longwall) of the coal seam.  This machine has a revolving cylinder with tungsten bits that shear off the coal.  The coal falls into a conveyor system which carries it out of the mine.  The roof is supported by large steel supports, attached to the longwall machine.  As the machine moves forward, the roof supports are advanced.  The roof behind the supports is allowed to fall.  Nearly 80 percent of the coal can be removed using this method.  The remaining 11 percent of underground production is produced by conventional mining which uses explosives to break up the coal for removal.

Half of the minable surface coal in the United States is located in the West, but significant amounts are also present in Appalachia and Midwestern states.  Surface mining is used when the coal seam is located relatively close to the surface, making underground mining impractical. 

Before a company can surface mine, it must gather information about the site regarding growing conditions, climate, soil composition, vegetation, wildlife, etc.  With this information, the company then applies to the state or federal government for a permit to mine.  The company must post a bond for each acre of land it mines to assure that it will be properly reclaimed.

Most surface mines follow the same basic steps to produce coal.  First, bulldozers clear and level the mining area.  The topsoil is removed and stored for later use in the reclamation process.  Many small holes are drilled through the overburden (dirt and rock above the coal seam) to the coal seam.  Each is loaded with explosives which are discharged, shattering the rock in the overburden.  Giant power shovels or draglines clear away the overburden until the coal is exposed.  Smaller shovels then scoop up the coal and load it onto trucks, which carry the coal to the preparation plant.

Once the coal is removed, the land is returned to the desired contour and the topsoil is replaced.  Native vegetation and/or trees are planted.  Coal companies operating surface mines must comply with strict requirements and regulations of the Federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.  A crucial part of the surface mining process is restoring a mined site to acceptable ecological conditions, which means it must be made as productive as it was prior to mining.  There are farms, parks, wilderness and recreation areas on what was once surface mines.

The major stigma associated with the coal industry today is the abandoned or "orphan" mines of the early coal mining years. These orphan mines are systematically being reclaimed under the Surface Mining Act taxes coal producers at the rate of 35 cents a ton for surface mined coal, 10 cents a ton for lignite mined coal, and 15 cents a ton for underground mined coal.  The tax is paid to the government and is used to reclaim the orphaned mines. 

Provided by National Energy Foundation.