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Coal At The Crossroads: Coal Country in the Age of Green

Hatfield's Ferry Power Plant
Hatfield's Ferry Power Plant

Greene County is in the far southwest corner of Pennsylvania. It is bordered on two sides by West Virginia, and outside of its towns, it is filled with winding country roads flanked by rolling hills. Here, coal still reigns.

Every summer, the county hosts the King Coal Show, a week-long festival with mine rescue contests, a parade, and the Pennsylvania Bituminous Coal Queen Pageant. On a stormy Sunday evening in August, high school girls in evening gowns touted their coal-mining pedigrees along with their good grades and volunteer work. Like many in the area, most could find a great-grandfather, uncle or father who worked in the mines to claim as their connection to the industry.

Here, said County Commissioner Pam Snyder, coal is not a dirty four-letter word.

“Coal means jobs, sustainability on our tax base, families being able to make a good living, raise their children, have decent health-care,” Snyder said.

Today, the coal patch towns that used to dot the county are a thing of the past, but one in five jobs in Greene County is still in mining, and Snyder said a third of the county’s general fund comes from taxes on coal.

Snyder said she does not see anti-coal campaigns as an attack on her community’s way of life. Rather, it is more like a misunderstanding.

“I think if you live in a part of the country where coal has no place and never existed, you are just used to turning on your light switch,” Snyder said, “never giving thought to where that electricity’s being powered from or how it’s getting into (your) home.”

Snyder said she understands why people take their power for granted, but argues those who oppose coal as a power source need to realize how big a role it plays in the nation’s energy portfolio.

‘You need to be mining coal to get paid’

Greene County is home to four major underground mines, including two of the largest in the country, Enlow Fork and Bailey Mine, which together span 22 miles north to south and spill into neighboring West Virginia.

Miners at Consol Energy’s Bailey mine ride an elevator down 700 feet and take a half-hour-long ride on an underground trolley just to get to the job site. There, a massive automated shearing machine lumbers along an exposed wall of coal and slices away at the coal seam. Braces hold the ceiling up until the cutting drums have cleared, then re-position farther down the wall. Chunks periodically fall from the ceiling into a sludge of water and coal dust.

Highly mechanized longwall mining is a far cry from the days of pick-axes and canaries, but mining is still hard, dirty work. Yet, it pays well, an average of almost $90,000, much higher than the county average.

In August, the Obama administration put in place new rules designed to cut the amount of air pollution from coal-fired power plants by more than half, a move the EPA says would reduce asthma, bronchitis and heart attacks in 31 states. The EPA is drafting global warming rules that could hit coal even harder.

Tom Mills, who has been working in Cumberland Mine in Greene County for five years, said he sees new regulations as a threat.

“No matter what you always worry about your job,” Mills said. “You need to be mining coal to get paid. And if they shut these power plants down, these coal-fired power plants, what are they going to use the coal for?”

Like many in the industry, Mills said the future of energy lies in cleaner-burning coal, not in renewable sources.

“Instead of the Sierra Club donating money to shut these places down, maybe they should have donated those millions of dollars to technology to make them burn cleaner,” Mills said.

Mills is not the only one feeling threatened. Billboards touting the reliability and affordability of coal over renewables pepper the highway in Southwestern Pennsylvania, paid for by a group called “Families Organized to Represent the Coal Economy.”

New energy sources in coal’s backyard

Perhaps a more immediate threat than new EPA regulations, though, is the natural gas boom. The tapping of huge reserves in the Marcellus Shale formation right in Greene County and across the region has driven down the price of natural gas and made it more competitive.

Jimmy Brock, chief operating officer for coal for Consol Energy, which owns Bailey mine and also has natural gas operations, said natural gas and new regulations could cut into the market for coal. But if demand drops domestically, he said he is confident the international markets will make up the difference.

“I am not worried for the future of the coal,” Brock said. “I believe coal’s here today, I believe it’ll be here tomorrow, and I believe it’ll be here for many years to come.”

Greene County Commissioner Pam Snyder put it differently. Although she said a serious blow to the coal industry would cripple her county’s economy, “nobody’s pushing panic buttons yet.”

The share of the nation's electricity generated by coal during the first quarter of this year was at its lowest in more than 30 years, due largely to low natural gas prices. But with U.S. demand for electricity expected to grow by about a third in the next quarter century, the industry says King Coal is here to stay.

Rick Jackson is a senior host and producer at Ideastream Public Media. He hosts the "Sound of Ideas" on WKSU and "NewsDepth" on WVIZ.