1970s: Coal Offers America Energy Security - 1970-1979
The energy crisis that many pundits had been warning about finally occurred in the 1970s. And when it came, amid Arab Oil Embargos, feared natural gas shortages, and rolling blackouts, coal offered itself up as the solution. With tremendous reserves and the ability to power the nation, the Nixon administration accepted coal’s suggestion, but on several condition, following passage of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 (often referred to as the Coal Act), the federal government was going to even more thoroughly regulate production, safety, reclamation and air pollution. And though the utility industry rapidly expanded by building more coal-fired power plants nationwide, the coal industry had never before come under such scrutiny. A large “ecologically” minded populace demanded more environmental controls and dogged the industry all decade.
Without a doubt, the most comprehensive piece of legislation affecting the operation of coal mines ever promulgated, this law regulated all aspects of mine safety, limiting the kinds of environments in which men could work. Though coal entered the 1970s “with a solid base for continuing growth and possibly in the strongest position in its history…the strict standards incorporated in the new federal law will make the cost of mining go up in 1970 and will challenge the industry to come up with ways of boosting efficiency to keep costs as low as possible,” wrote editor Alfred E. Flowers in the January 1970 issue.
Continuous mining methods, further advances in longwall technology, and the increased size of surface mines allowed production to soar, and a series of energy shocks and oil embargoes improved the industry’s profit margins.
In 1971, Congress passed the Clean Air Act (CAA) limiting sulfur and nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions. To enforce this and other sweeping environmental legislation, and to help corral various state initiatives, the Republican Nixon administration created a new federal bureaucracy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Equipped with enforcement powers, a green police force was let loose upon the land.
New plants being built nationwide assured a growing future for the industry, but various challenges remained. Chief among these was labor, both attracting, training and retaining enough manpower as well as keeping the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from totally imploding. Immediately following the vicious murder of former UWMA presidential candidate Jock Yablonski, along with his wife and daughter on December 29, 1969, questions about the assassination arose. When the criminal investigation led to arrests in 1970, fingers pointed back to union leadership. Witnesses began implicating individuals out of President Tony Boyle’s office as initiating, authorizing and paying for the hit. With unrelated federal corruption charges raining down on Boyle’s head, the lurid details about the murder came out. New elections were called, and as union members went to the ballot box, not since the dark days of the Depression had the UMWA been that divided.
Turmoil and Questions Surround New Regulations
In 1969, electric utilities burned a record 310 million tons and total coal production reached 573 million tons. In 1970, with the electrical markets demanding even more coal, production jumped to more than 610 million tons—the highest total in more than 20 years. Not since the postwar days of 1948 had coal produced reached 600 million tons. Better still, as the decade began, total demand was outstripping production by a margin of some 20 million tons. Meeting the production goals throughout the decade would require capital expenditures at record rates. In 1970, producers boosted spending almost 30% as they quickly moved to open up and equip new mines and build new preparation plants.
But in the April 1970 issue, Flowers warned of trouble ahead. “An unprecedented demand for low-cost energy is sweeping our country and satisfying that demand already is imposing a great responsibility on our energy resources…The difficulty of meeting our energy needs in the years ahead is compounded by the growing concern about pollution. Every large metropolitan area has set standards limiting sulfur oxides emissions and most of them are being tightened. Very little of the coal mined east of the Mississippi River can meet the present standards and when the tighter regulations go into effect, virtually none of this coal will be suitable for power generation.”
East Coast utilities, which had turned to gas and oil because of the stringent sulfur standards, were increasingly dependent on foreign energy sources, in particular Middle Eastern oil producers. “Thus our highly industrialized Northeast is rapidly becoming dependent on the eastern hemisphere for energy—and at the risk of our national security,” wrote Flowers.
Natural gas was not a cure-all either as production levels fell. “As a long-range solution to the energy problem, it would be logical to divert funds to the perfection of sulfur-removal processes now being tested or under development,” wrote Flowers.
But the key problem, Flowers wrote in his June 1970 editorial, was lack of available manpower. “In the past several years the subject of attracting good men to the coal industry has been on the lips of virtually all management men. The problem still remains acute and, as our industry becomes more complex, it probably will become worse.” Right he was. In the late 1960s, Consol and other producers were already nervously watching much of their workforce approach retirement. Management knew those numbers would increase throughout the decade.
With coal production costs rising due to more stringent regulations and with other fuels also become more expensive, Flowers declared in his August 1970 editorial that “the era of cheap energy may be coming to an end. There are restrictive regulations that hamper coal production, the public clamors for pollution abatement, the railroads cannot provide enough cars to haul coal, wildcat strikes continue and labor shortages plague the coal industry…The public, which as grown accustomed to consuming electric power in larger and larger gulps at lower and lower cost per kilowatt, must face up to the fact each new restriction on either the fuel producer or the power plant will make it impossible to deliver electric energy at today’s low cost.”
At a moment when an example of proper coordination was needed, Coal Age returned to the massive Chestnut Ridge energy complex in the October 1970 issue to showcase how planned efficiencies can actually come together. The subject of several articles in the late 1960s, for the 1970 Model Mining Number, Flowers celebrated how energy for millions of Americans was being created in this one small area. “One of the world’s largest concentrations of new generating stations—Conemaugh, Homer City and Keystone—has been built on top of the Chestnut Ridge reserves and receive their coal from adjacent deep mines.” With roughly 12 billion tons of bituminous reserves, “coal also moves from the area by unit train to other generating stations, and soon will be going to the new Montour plant now under construction.” Combined, the six stations were capable of generating more than 6,500,000 kW per hour and would consume some 17 million tpy. But “this coal-energy explosion did not just happen. It came about rather as the result of foresighted managements of coal producers and investor-owned utilities. And it goes back nearly a decade.” Stability, in other words, takes planning and, as the national energy system was being built out, sustainable, realistic policies needed to be created in order to avert the looming energy crisis.
As the year ended, a short rail strike cut production back a few million tons. Add wildcat strikes throughout the beginning of the year, and labor continued to be the biggest drag on production—though it continued to soar. However, “the impact of the new federal health and safety law became apparent in 1970, with some operators of deep mines reporting significant increases in costs and corresponding decreases in productivity. Hardest hit were the older mines that sometimes required major changes in ventilation or equipment. Complying with the new law while keeping costs down could be one of the toughest challenges the industry has faced.”
The manpower crisis showed no signs of diminishing in 1970 and, if anything grew worse. “For the foreseeable future, this problem will be of major concern for management. Only an all-out effort, by individual companies and the industry as a whole, will bring the needed workers.” In the January 1971 issue, the magazine reprinted part of a college advertising campaign by AMAX designed to attract student mining engineers.
Surface Mining Comes Under Fire
Just after Christmas 1970, West Virginia’s Secretary of State, John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV announced a campaign to ban the surface mining of coal “completely and forever” throughout the state. Key West Virginia lawmakers pledged their support when the legislature convened in late January. Much of the political establishment “jumped on the popular ecological bandwagon” as did the influential Charleston Gazette which backed Rockefeller completely. By February, legislation seemed like a done deal. But the industry fought back. Faced with a public battle, the West Virginia Surface Mine Association hired Alexander Co., a New York Public Relations firm to design, create and deploy a series of television commercials as part of a larger campaign. By the time the legislature adjourned in March, it had passed much weakened regulations. The commercials made the difference.
Of course, Rockefeller and his sympathizers were just parroting the new line from Washington where, on December 20, 1970, President Nixon established the EPA. Armed with sweeping powers, Senior Editor Nicholas P. Chironis, detailed the still developing EPA in the August 1971 issue. Already employing more than 6,000 people and showing “evidence of a remarkable rate of growth in both authority and size, its operating budget for this past year has been a nice, fat $1.3 billion—yet, surprisingly, the House just passed next year’s appropriation at the level requested by EPA, nearly $2.5 billion—without a quibble.” Functions already transferred to the agency: control of water pollution and pollutants that impair water quality; air pollution; waste disposal; radiation pollution; and control over the use of various pesticides.
The federal government’s requirement that industry submit detailed data on all waste discharges that may wind up in navigable rivers, lakes and coastal waters, challenged the coal industry. More than 50,000 applicants were expected by the October 1. Deadline and skepticism was mounting that the new agency was up to the task of evaluating and processing all of those permits in time. Helping to enforce new laws and collect fines was the Justice Department. “We are not in any popularity contest,” said Walter Kiechel Jr., deputy assistant attorney general. “We’re the enforcers, we’re the litigators. In the words of the Scriptures, Chapter 10, the Gospel according to John, verse 24—‘I come not to bring peace but a sword.’” Then, referring to the fact that the Act provides a fine for violators of up to $2,500 and imprisonment for a year, he went on to say, “A $2,500 fine doesn’t have much impact on a large corporation, but it does get your attention.” On August 17, the EPA published new air quality regulations. Setting limits on particulates, SO2 and NO2, the new standards would apply to new stationary sources but also to existing plants that are modified in such a way as to increase or alter the nature of their emissions.
Buffalo Creek Tragedy
On February 26, 1972, tragedy struck the coalfields once again. An earthen embankment holding more than 20 million cu ft of water failed at the head of the Buffalo Creek in Logan County, W.Va., sending more than 150 million gallons crashing down an 18-mile stretch of the creek. A total of 117 people were pronounced dead and more than 30 were still missing as Coal Age’s April issue went to press. In addition, the floodwaters from the Pittston-owned mine destroyed 502 homes, 44 mobile homes, and caused major damage to 273 more dwellings. With coal already in the cross-hairs of the state government, renewed calls for regulations in West Virginia and throughout the nation spread nearly as fast as the floodwaters. Legislation to ban surface mining both on the West Virginia state level and on the national level was debated and introduced in both Charleston and Washington, D.C.
“The rebuilding of Buffalo Valley is expected to last over a year. But what happened there will have a permanent impact on the coal industry and the people of West Virginia. In addition to the numerous investigations and new legislation in West Virginia, Buffalo Creek has increased chances for the passage of the mine area protection act now before Congress, as well as further legislation,” wrote the editors in the April 1972 issue. Strict surface mine legislation was later passed that year in Ohio, West Virginia and Illinois, and similar rules were considered nationwide.
“The tragedy along Buffalo Creek stuns each one of us. The first concern now is to serve the physical and material needs of the victims as well as possible in view of the totality of destruction in the 18-mi long hollow. Many of them are bereft of the bare resources they will need to face tomorrow and next week and the weeks beyond,” wrote the editors. Coal Age and McGraw-Hill employees created a special relief fund to help assist families in the Buffalo Creek disaster. As relief efforts continued along Buffalo Creek, legislation nationwide dealt with surface mining or ecological issues.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that states could not set up stronger anti-pollution regulations than the federal government, sustained ecological, mine safety and black lung legislation continued to be sought and passed. Regulation of surface mining on the state level was running at an all-time high despite the fact that coal operators graded and planted more than 81,600 acres of surface mined land in 1971.
At least 14 of the 22 major surface coal-producing states strengthened existing statues, while Missouri and New Mexico enacted their first state reclamation laws in 1971 and 1972. This brought the number of states with reclamation laws to 21. Because regulations differed from state to state, “the coal industry supports comprehensive federal legislation which will establish criteria for achieving sound reclamation and which will require the states to develop and enforce regulations that will meet those federal standards,” said Carl E. Bagge, president of the National Coal Association (NCA) in the July 1972 issue. Though Congress would adjourn to hit the campaign trail without passing surface mining legislation, that summer President Nixon signed the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972 with “mixed emotions” stating, “Responsibility for black lung compensation clearly should lie with the owners and operators of the mines,” and not the federal government.
The September 1971 issue of the magazine featured something unexpected and unprecedented on the cover: female coal miner Betty Gibbs, mining engineer, Consolidated Coal Co. “Even in today’s rapidly changing world—in which women are making noteworthy contributions in fields once considered the exclusive domain of men, you’ll seldom find a woman mining engineer. A 1969 graduate of Colorado School of Mines (CSM), Betty was recruited by Consol. Moving to Colorado in 1964, Betty was a draftsman in Boulder, an engineering aid for the City of Boulder and a draftsman and secretary for a surveyor before enrolling at CSM. Her first assignment for Consol was to survey a possible coal deposit for the Western Exploration Office in Denver. Her duties later took her to Utah and New Mexico. Coal Age is grateful to Betty Gibbs for her presence on our cover, and we welcome her to the mining fraternity.”
The cover surprises kept coming that year as the magazine published another rarity in October: the first ever model mine issue profiling Peabody Coal. Nearly as old as the magazine, Peabody up to that point had escaped Coal Age’s near annual spotlight on a single mining company. Consol had been featured several times. Peabody had, up until this point remained something of a mystery. Operating 49 mines in 12 states as well as Queensland, Australia, and gearing up to produce more than 100 million tons by 1975, at the time of the review, Peabody was tenuously owned by Kennecott Copper.
Kennecott was involved in anti-trust litigation with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) since August 1968, just six months after the two companies were conjoined. Kennecott would fight the FTC throughout the decade, losing virtually every time. In the October 1971 issue, Coal Age was given a rare tour of the nation’s largest coal producer.
Surface mining accounted for almost 80% of the company’s total production of more than 54 million tons. Peabody’s largest operations were in the Midwest. New surface mines in the area accounted for much of that tonnage, but the company was also in the advanced development stages of the new Black Mesa mine in Arizona as well as developing new markets for Montana coal from the company’s Big Sky property where overburden was removed by a Marion 7400 dragline. Though River King attracted more attention, the new Marion 8900 145-yd dragline at the Indiana Dugger mine was the largest in the company’s U.S. fleet. Assigned the task of uncovering 200,000 tons of coal per month from the Indiana Nos. 6 and 7 seams, this required the removal of more than 2.8 million cu yd of overburden each month. With operations concentrated near water, approximately 30% to 35% of the company’s production moves in water transportation to some 38 utility and industrial accounts.
Organized Labor Stumbles
The decade opens with the national media following a trail of salacious material coming from the investigation into the murder of Joseph (Jock) Yablonski, former candidate for president of the UMWA. Seven defendants were found guilty killing Joseph, his wife and their daughter in a grisly killing in December 1969. Both those found guilty and witnesses implicated Tony Boyle and several of his underlings as hiring the defendants to commit the act. Silous Huddleston, a Tennessee local president of the UWMA confessed on May 3, 1972, that he had directed and handled the payoff for the murder with what he said “I believe” was union money. He said the money was channeled to him by two UMWA officials including Albert Pass, a member of the union’s international executive board. In March 1973, William Prater, the highest ranking former UMWA official tried to date in the murders was convicted.
On May 10, Boyle and three other union officials testified before a grand jury about using specially-designated union funds to hire the killers. Also in May, the 1969 election results between Yablonski and Boyle was overturned by a U.S. District Judge. In a 33-page decision, the judge found that evidence of wrong doing was “too strong to resist.” A new election was to be held in December 1972. However, Boyle would not be on the ballot—or at least able to serve. He was found guilty of misappropriating union funds for political reasons that spring and would continue to face all sorts of other charges. On September 6, 1973, Boyle was arrested and charged with Yablonski’s murder. 18 days later, Boyle tried to commit suicide and was admitted to George Washington University Hospital after taking a “massive overdose of barbiturates.”
Boyle was convicted of ordering the killings in 1974 and again at a new trial in 1978. Eight other people, three of them UMWA officials, either confessed to having taken part in the murder plot or were convicted of having done so. He would spend most of the rest of his life in prison, dying in 1985.
Arnold Miller, a member of the Miners for Democracy, was nominated to challenge Boyle’s successor in the election. Miller, of Ohley, W.Va., was president of the Black Lung Association and a disciple of the late Yablonski. Miller at the time was best known for his leadership in the successful drive by rank-and-file miners and widows to push a black lung compensation bill through the West Virginia legislature in 1969. Miller himself was forced to leave the mines in 1970 when he was diagnosed with the disease. He had also been president of UMWA Local 2903 at Eskdale, W.Va. After winning the election in 1972, Miller helped establish more local controls and, for the first time, UWMA rank-and-file would be able to directly vote to decide the contract.
This election marked a turning point in the history of the UMWA and brought an end to the calm 20 years that had followed the stormy 40 years that went into establishing the union as the preeminent voice of labor in the coal industry.
The UMWA signed a three-year contract with the BCOA on December 5, 1974. UMWA President Arnold Miller calls it the best contract in the union’s history. It will increase the basic daily wage about $9, from $45.40 to $54.39 over the three-year period. It’s estimated the contract will cost the coal industry about $4.6 billion over the same period. The BCOA released a statement that simply said, “While a very costly one for the industry, it is a very forward looking agreement and it will be of great benefit for the miners. We hope that it will serve the public interest as well by providing improved productivity and greater stability of production for the nation’s coal mines.”
The decade closes with the longest strike in the nation’s history, which left a trail of singed careers and bruised egos, according to Coal Age. It was not until the union had turned down two proposed contracts and the government had to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act that real progress was made in the talks. By that time, the operators had replaced their bargaining team and union had augmented theirs to deal around their discredited president.
While Miller was criticized as an ineffectual leader, dissension among the operators also contributed to the prolonging of the 110-day strike in 1978 and forced the BCOA to change its negotiating team in the middle of the bargaining session. Ralph Bailey, chairman of Consol’s parent company Conoco, was so dissatisfied with a lack of cohesion among larger producers, he ordered Consol to pull out of the BCOA.
Ultimately on March 14, 1978, the two groups negotiated an agreement that would increase the average hourly wage to $10.20 from $7.80 by the contract expiration in late 1981. The important part of the package was the health benefits. Benefits would no longer be free. Free health care was endangered by a 1977-1978 crisis in the UMWA fund and health care would now be guaranteed under company plans. For the rest of the decade as the coal industry saw its fortunes and reputation improve, labor once again grew restive and sought the kind of leadership that would have allowed it to cash in more directly on the industry’s improved prospects.
Women Enter the Mines
During the 1970s, women enter the workforce. The first woman coal miner went to work at a U.S. mine in 1973. By 1980, of the 255,888 U.S. coal miners, 15,252 were women. An article in the June 1977 issue, “Women Dig into the Coal Industry”, discusses how females, who are considered bad luck underground, are now contributing in all aspects of the coal business. Women want to be coal miners. They can make more money than they can by doing any other kind of work. In 1976, there were 4,700 women employed in all segments of the coal industry out of a total of 182,000.
Oil Embargo Thrusts Coal into the Spotlight
The Arab oil boycott exploded on the nation late in October 1973, surprising the coal industry as much as anyone. In November 1973, Bagge called for a coal research program comparable to the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. The same issue reported that large East Coast utilities were switching to coal. The National Petroleum Council concluded that coal could make a major contribution to the nation’s energy needs.
Coal Age’s editorial in August 1974, remarked that “...for a number of reasons the demand for coal is outrunning the supply...and cited the case of Scranton, Pa., once known as the anthracite capital of the world, where the price of coal had jumped from $25 to $40 a ton within a year.”
In the next few years, Coal Age reported the promises of Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter that coal consumption would triple by 2000, that coal would be the savior of the nation. There was so much news about plans for the production of synthetic fuels from coal that a special department in the Coal Age news section was created.
Additional coal-fired generating capacity was bought online quickly (and some would say hastily). From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, about 10,000 mw of new coal-fired capacity was added each year. By 1978, Congress, concerned with national security aspects of energy matters, passed a law forbidding the building of large, new oil-fired plants, enhancing coal’s encroachment in the energy mix. Coal’s share of the electricity generation rose from about 46% to nearly 56% during the 1970s. During the same time, however, 70 new nuclear generating stations went into service, dampening some of coal’s chances for an even greater energy market share.
To keep up with the surge in demand, the coal industry was expanding rapidly and hiring great numbers of miners. Some 45,000 new miners were hired in 1974 alone. The average age of coal miners dropped from 45 to 35 in the five years from 1970 to 1975.
At the end of 1975, President Ford signs an energy bill that rolled back crude prices. It also authorized up to $750 million in loan guarantees for opening new underground coal mines by small operators. Under the provisions of the bill, the federal government could guarantee loans up to $30 million for individual underground mines if the operators could establish they were not controlled by an oil company and there was a reasonable chance they could pay back the loan.
During the sixth annual Institute of Coal Mining Health and Safety, August 26-28, 1975, at Virginia Tech, Carl Bagge, president of the National Coal Association (NCA), talked about the need for increased productivity and safety. In his presentation, “The Health of the American Coal Industry and the Safety of the American Public,” he stressed the twin goals of increased productivity and mining safety. He noted that most accidents occur at marginal mines or marginal companies. To keep up with future demand, Bagge described a scenario where the U.S. would have to open on average one new deep mine and one new surface mine, each with 2 million tpy capacity, every month for the next 10 years. He believed the industry would have to hire and train 125,000 new miners by 1985. He saw technology as the best means for achieving this goal and called for more emphasis on research.
As an example, Pittston, the nation’s fifth largest coal producer at the time, planned to spend $350 million over the next five years in a nine-mine expansion program aimed at boosting its annual production by 1.5 million tons of met coal. Four of the operations would begin in 1975 and the remaining five would come online in 1976. When they reached full production in 1980, the company anticipated they would have created 4,500 new jobs.
Tense labor situations eventually resulted in a 1974 contract with the UMWA that dramatically increased production costs. Operators would again turn to better underground mining techniques, such as super sections and longwall mining, to improve productivity and offset costs.
Underground Mining’s Unprecedented Scale-up
Because of the 1969 Mine Act, continuous miner manufacturers were occupied with physical design changes to mitigate noise and dust problems. By 1970, about 1,600 continuous miners were in use, and rotary-headed units were being built with more powerful cutting performance. Cutting tools were one key to the success of continuous miners. A burst of innovation in the mid-1970s led to the installation of remote controls on test miners to keep operators back from the dust area and out-by the unsupported roof. Both radio and cable controls were used, and mines reported up to 15% gain in productivity. Jeffrey Mining Machinery Co. developed a digitally coded FM radio-control system that would permit two or more machines to operate simultaneously and prevents one transmitter unintentionally operating the wrong machine.
A March 1975 Coal Age article, “Boost Your Productivity by Adding Continuous Miners,” written by Stan Suboleski, an instructor at Penn State, explained the rational for operating two continuous miners in one production heading. The technique offers the promise of nearly doubling present tonnage rates with about one-half of the capital and manpower required for a complete new section. This method of room-and-pillar mining would become very popular and eventually be known as a super section.
Another article, “The Yardstick of Productivity…,” (July 1975) asks, “Is it high tons per man-day or is it low cost per ton?” The author, who is advocating high horsepower over manpower, explained that the answer is both. The graphic provided depicting major technological eras in underground mining does not yet include longwall mining.
The new health and safety laws gave new impetus to the interest in longwall mining. The absence of the need for rock dusting, the ease and efficiency of ventilation, good and almost automatic roof control with little consumable material appeared the chief attractions.
Longwall units produced greater tonnages in the 1970s and more were deployed the following year. In the March 1971 issue, Brian Watson, a longwall engineer formerly of Bethlehem Mines, reported on improved operations at the company’s No. 33 mine, Cambria Division, “where a longwall unit recently broke a world production record by mining 7,280 tons in a 24-hr period. The best shift production during this period was more than 2,860 tons.
In the May 1971 issue, William Laird, vice president of engineering at Eastern Associated Coal Corp. reported on his company’s continuing usage and development of longwall mining technologies. The first company to install and successfully operate such a system in the Pittsburgh seam, in 1969 Eastern began longwall mining in its Federal No. 1 mine near Grant Town, W.Va. Operated by a seven-member crew, the highest shift tonnage was approximately 2,500 tons.
In the August 1972 issue, Coal Age published the forerunner to the annual Longwall Census. Written by Joseph Kuti, chief engineer at Mining Progress, he reported that as of April 1972, 41 longwalls were operating or delivered in the U.S. Sixteen of the 41 units were plows and 25 were shearers. At the time, 22 more contracts had been placed for additional longwall systems. Nine of those new contracts called for plows and 14 for shearers. Nationwide, the longwall leader was Eastern Associated Coal. By 1972, they had 16 systems active or on order; seven were plows and nine were shearers. Island Creek was number two in the nation with 15 plows active or on order.
True advances in longwall mining begin to take place with the introduction of the shield support, sometime in 1974.Within months, the operator of these supports, Consolidation Coal Co., established a new American coal production record—12,395 tons in a single 24-hour period at its Robinson Run mine—and that performance caught the eye of the industry. About 20 months later, in the January 1977 issue of Coal Age, the editors stated, “shield supports, a Russian development that came to the West in the early 1970s, are the most talked-about type of support today and the major contributing factor to the recent surge of longwalling activity in the U.S.” In 1973, shortly before shield supports were first to be imported into the U.S., there were only 40 longwall faces. None had shield supports. By the end of 1976, a survey published by Coal Age showed 72 faces operating, six with shield supports.
The rapid acceptance of shield supports by coal operator led to an interest in automating the control of those shields. Instead of manually operating each shield along the face, controls were bunched so that a group of shields would move in sequence and could be operated from distant locations. These controls were introduced in the latter half of the decade.
Until 1978, virtually all equipment used on longwall faces either came from Europe or was manufactured in the U.S. by subsidiaries of those European companies. These companies contindue to dominate the market. In 1978, however, Joy Manufacturing Co. became the first U.S. company to design and build a complete longwall system. It was installed that year on a 500-ft face in West Virginia.
By 1973, an electrohydraulic system for controlling a roof-bolter proved itself after operational testing. During 1974, the forerunner of the current automated temporary roof support (ATRS) bolters was built by FMC and operated in an Island Creek mine in Martin County, Ky. Two versions were built, one with four hydraulic legs for conventional mining, the other with two legs for continuous mining.
In the midst of the coal boom in the mid-1970s, many coal operators who had been leaving pillars for roof support began extracting them. This type of work required temporary roof supports for which FMC developed a walking frame and a mobile support. About the same time, J.H. Fletcher & Co. developed a dual boom bolter with an ATRS consisting of two legs and a crossbeam, and Lee-Norse Co. integrated a safety arm into the boom bolter mechanism.
Overall, however, continuous miner productivity was on the downslide from its high-water mark of 15.6 tons per man-day, achieved in 1969. By the end of 1974, productivity had fallen to 11.6 tons per man-day and was destined to go lower still. That year, four companies under contract with the Bureau of Mines (BoM) were busy developing designs for an automated extraction system for three-entry continuous mining. The goal was to boost production to an average of 8 tons per minute and to raise actual production time to 300 minutes per shift, resulting in a production rate of 2,400 tons. At the time, some 60% of deep mines used continuous miners that produced only 200 to 600 tons per section per shift. The resulting machines were essentially continuous miners but with added capabilities for continuous roof support and bolting, robot-like mimicking, and ventilation and dust control. Success was mixed but the machines produced served as precursors to some of today’s modern equipment.
Mine Safety: MESA Becomes MSHA
The 1969 Coal Act was more comprehensive and more stringent than any previous federal legislation governing the mining industry. It included surface as well as underground coal mines within its scope, required two annual inspections of every surface coal mine and four at every underground coal mine, and dramatically increased federal enforcement powers in coal mines. The Coal Act also required monetary penalties for all violations, and established criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations. The safety standards for all coal mines were strengthened, and health standards were adopted. The Coal Act included specific procedures for the development of improved mandatory health and safety standards, and provided compensation for miners who were totally and permanently disabled by coal miner’s pneumoconiosis or “black lung.”
In 1973, the Secretary of the Interior, through administrative action, created the Mining Enforcement and Safety Adminis-tration (MESA) as a new departmental agency separate from the BoM. MESA assumed the safety and health enforcement functions formerly carried out by the BoM to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest between the enforcement of mine safety and health standards and the BoM’s responsibilities for mineral resource development.
In 1975, Coal Age reported that the two groups were feuding over coal mine safety research dollars. The outgoing MESA chief criticized BoM research for focusing too much on long-range projects rather than immediate solutions to the problem of making underground and surface mines safer. The UMWA and the NCA both believed that research should remain with the BoM.
By 1976, MESA was collecting more than $8.5 million in fines per year. That figure is up from $4.7 million in 1974 and $100,000 in 1970.
On the night of March 10, 1976, the Scotia mine suffered two explosions killing 26. Methane gas was believed to be the cause of the explosions. MESA had inspected the mine the evening before and cited the mine over ventilation, which it promptly corrected. The day of the explosion, a foreman called out that something was amiss with the ventilation and the explosion occurred shortly afterward. Scotia Coal, located in Cumberland, Ky., was a subsidiary of Blue Diamond Coal. The mine produced about 1.5 million tpy from three seams. The first explosion occurred at 1:15 p.m. killing 15 miners in the lowest seams, 1,600 ft dep. Nine miners were killed instantly. The other six managed to don self-rescuers and erect a barricade. Ultimately the barricade leaked and they suffocated when the respirators expired. Approximately 121 miners were underground at the time.
A second explosion, March 11, took the lives of 11 more men, including three federal safety officials. They were part of a rescue team that entered the mine to reinforce the roof so that federal mine inspectors could begin their investigation. After months of investigation, MESA concluded a spark from a battery-operated locomotive triggered the first explosion. The second explosion was believed to be created when loosened roof rock struck steel machinery or possibly by exposed battery wires sheared during the first explosion.
Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. The Mine Act amended the 1969 Coal Act in a number of significant ways, and consolidated all federal health and safety regulations of the mining industry, coal as well as non-coal mining, under a single statutory scheme. The Mine Act strengthened and expanded the rights of miners, and enhanced the protection of miners from retaliation for exercising such rights. Mining fatalities dropped sharply under the Mine Act from 272 in 1977 to 22 year-to-date (July 17, 2007).
The Mine Act also transferred responsibility for carrying out its mandates from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Labor, and created the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) during March 1978. Additionally, the Mine Act established the independent Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to provide independent review of the majority of MSHA’s enforcement actions.
Fueled by the first Arab oil embargo of 1973, orders for draglines greater than 16-yd grew to 43 in 1973 from 16 in 1969, before skyrocketing to 106 in 1974. Almost all of these machines (90%) were for the North American coal industry. Then the bubble bursts. Orders plunged to 17 in 1975.
During the 1970s, more compact, powerful electric and hydraulic shovels began to appear in the coalfields to strip and load overburden and coal directly into trucks. Limited to shallower depths of overburden than draglines, such loading shovels proved effective for preparing benches for draglines and for multiple-bench mining applications.
Congress enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), to which regulate environmental aspects of surface and underground mining. It requires all mines on federal lands to submit a mining and reclamation plan that could be approved as part of a larger permit to mine on those lands, and provides that in all cases mine operators must submit mining and reclamation plans for their operations that satisfy the authorities that the mine will not endanger the environment.
The regulatory program is administered by the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM). In general, the regulations require separate removal and handling of all upper soil horizons capable of supporting vegetation cover. Topsoil may be redistributed only after the backfilled area has been properly prepared. All disturbed areas must be returned to their approximate original contours wherever possible. Spoil must be replaced to eliminate all highwalls, spoil piles and depressions. Final graded slopes may not exceed the pre-mining slopes, and the regulatory authority can require lesser slopes. Highwalls must be eliminated and graded to achieve permissible stability. Cut-and-fill terraces may be used only when approved by the regulating authority.
Mountaintop-removal variances may be allowed if the activity includes the removal of an entire coal seam from the upper fraction of a mountain or hill and the resultant landscape is a plateau. Such a landscape must be designed to meet a post-mining land use that will accommodate an industrial, commercial, agricultural, residential or public facility, including recreational facilities.
Surface mine operators begin to modify mine plans to comply with SMCRA. Scrapers experienced a new wave of popularity because they can strip topsoil and overburden and spread the material precisely where it is wanted. Some scrapers are now fitted with sensors that feed information to microprocessors and shift gears at optimum time electronically. Other microprocessor systems are successfully throttling scraper wheel slippages.
In a June 1979 profile of Carter Mining’s Raw Hide mine, Coal Age explained how the mine would begin production using a truck/shovel/scraper combination. With overburden ranging from 0 to 250 ft and the total thickness of the two coals seams equaling 100 ft, the stripping ration throughout the life of the property is 1:1. After the topsoil is removed with scrapers, a tuck-shovel combination would remove overburden in 50-ft benches. The 25-yd Bucyrus-Erie 295B works in conjunction with 170-ton Unit Rig Lectra Haul Mark 36 haul tucks. The scrapers are also used to build ramps into the pit.
Coal Preparation Benefits from CAA
In 1971, the EPA enacted the Standard of Performance for SO2 Emissions, the standard being 1.2 lb of SO2 per million Btu. In 1979, the EPA introduced its New Source Performance Standards for SO2 Emissions, requiring 70% to 90% SO2 reduction, depending upon sulfur levels. These two acts had a significant impact on coal preparation because the principal consumers of steam coal now had compelling reasons to demand the cleanest possible fuel.
In 1976, the editors wrote about the coming surge in coal preparation. They discuss the influence of the CAA on future demand and discuss how low-sulfur coal and flue-gas scrubbers will not be able to meet the need. They see coal preparation as the only way to meet the industry’s needs.
The sectors experiment with several different equipment in an effort to improve the quality of coal. In the early 1970s, two high-capacity, small-floor-space thickeners were introduced. They were the Enviroclear thickener, first on-line in 1973, and the Lamella thickener, first on-line in 1975. Another interesting improvement in dewatering, the Vorsiv, came from Poland and was first installed in 1973. It gave a high primary dewatering capacity and was considered to be an improvement on the sieve bend. The first modular preparation plant, with a 100-tph capacity, was built by the Childress Corp. and went on line in 1976.
While some things were becoming more compact, others were boosting capacity. Most significant among these were the large flotation cells, 300 to 500 cu ft, introduced in the early 1970s. Almost all new preparation plants were using froth flotation cells, although not all were for coal recovery so much as for blackwater treatment. Other events in U.S. coal preparation include the introduction of the Batac jig for fine coal in 1975 and the 1977 at opening of the Homer City coal preparation plant, an operation producing super-clean coal, low sulfur, with a very low ash content.
Mired in Regulations
Despite the obvious need for low-cost energy, the coal industry struggled with increasing regulation and government bureaucracy. At an event organized by Coal Age, under the theme “Strategies for 1976—and Beyond,” Bagge called for candor—and clear eyesight. “The fact is there are few people in Congress capable of counseling on a strategy for coal,” Bagge said. “We have our friends in Congress, to be sure, but they are too few in number to be able to give us any assurance that they can carry the day in the crucial contests which affects coal’s future…We need to have other policies which will encourage investment in coal and lead to the development of mines for the long-term. We need to convince the public that coal cannot be the ‘Red Cross’ of the energy industries, called out only in emergencies and kept in standby condition the rest of the time.”
Jimmy Carter won the presidential election in 1976. In a January 1977 editorial, Paul Merritt, managing editor, summed up the situation: A new year. A new administration. A new Congress. But it looked as though we would continue dealing with the same old problems that have plagued the industry for years and which our representatives in Washington have either ineffectually handled or faced up to. He pointed out that President Carter is standing at the threshold of a potentially energy-independent America and that America should invest money in a domestic energy policy.
In October 1977, the new Department of Energy (DoE) formally sets up shop. It is a relatively small agency by Washington standards, according to Coal Age. “From the first batch of nominations, it was apparent that dealing with the nation’s energy difficulties will be placed largely in the hands of economists and system analysts,” the magazine reported. The new DoE absorbed the Federal Energy Agency (FEA), the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Federal Power Commission.
In 1977, Coal Age Editor Joseph F. Wilkinson takes President Carter to task over a statement he made regarding slow gains in productivity. “The President implies that American industry has lost its old innovativeness, that American workers don’t want to work. Actually, the problem is that Congress and the White House and the regulatory agencies have shown too much innovativeness. They are going to innovate American industry in general and coal mining in particular right out of existence with their regulations.”
The decade closes similar to how it opened. Coal operators were worried about complying with even more new regulations and labor. A weak met market, environmental regulations and increased costs for utilities are causing high unemployment in the coal industry and long-term outlook is not good. The jobless numbers are high: Kentucky (3,900), West Virginia (5,000) and Ohio (4,000). The coal industry has about 100 million tons of idled capacity. A geographic shift in coal production is taking place, from deep mines in the East to western surface mines.