The History of Coal

As a chemistry major, my first instinct when talking about coal is to discuss its chemical makeup. It’s made of the most well-known element on our planet, Carbon. And, although diamonds are also made up of carbon, coal seems to always be the one getting a bad rep.

I know for many of us, the talk of coal and its implications can lead to very charged conversations, but let’s take a step back for a second. Coal has a rich history in America, and it has become a staple of our society in ways that many of us don’t realize.

Coal may seem as though it just sprung up sometime around the Industrial Revolution, and although it is true that this rise in the industry brought coal to the forefront, coal as a fuel source has actually been around since the prehistoric era. Archeologists have also found evidence that the Romans used coal in England during the second and third centuries (100-200 AD). It was the industrial revolution and the rise of steam-powered everything, though, that made coal a success, and to this day, it is one of the main sources for heating and fuel within the United States. And this makes sense when we consider the fact that currently, the U.S. has more coal than the rest of the world has oil. That means that there is still enough coal underground right now to provide energy for us for the next 200 to 300 years.

When coal was first being used, it was harvested at ground level. It was typically found on hills, but upon retrieval of the surface level material, it was quickly determined that the layers (seams) of coal go far deeper. Today, many mines are hundreds of feet underground. Another more recent form of mining is called mountaintop removal in which the top of a mountain is quite literally blown off to expose the coal seam deep below. This type of excavation can completely destroy the beautiful mountain scenery that Appalachia is known for.

Aside from mining techniques, coal poses some other environmental issues as well. As I said before, coal is made of carbon, but it also contains other trace elements as well. Specifically, coal can contain nitrogen and sulfur that, when burned, are released into the atmosphere. This may not seem awful until we consider the fact that these elements can combine with water in the air to create nitric and sulfuric acid (also known as acid rain). The carbon in coal can pose problems as well. When burned, the carbon is also released into the atmosphere where it combines with oxygen in the air to create carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that directly contributes to global warming. Clean coal programs have been in place since 1985 though, which have reduced the frequency of acid rain mainly through removing sulfur from coal. A lot of these regulations are recent though, and for the first 150 years that coal mining was around, it was completely unregulated.

The lack of regulation, while definitely affecting the environment, took its most obvious toll of the coal miners themselves. Coal companies are notorious for treating their workers poorly, and when mining first began, fires, explosions, noxious gasses, and cave-in’s were frequent and unpredictable. It was dangerous, and over 100,000 miners have died in underground coal mining incidents alone. Apart from the daily dangers, there were issues for long-time workers as well. Black lung, a respiratory disease caused by chronic inhalation of coal dust, was common among coal miners. And, coal miners were often required to work long hours with minimal training for poor benefits.

Coal companies were able to keep workers around despite these poor working conditions because of their ability to entice miners with promises of housing and food. In the early days, coal companies would often create their own towns, renting houses to workers and their families. Miners were paid in company currency called ‘scrip,’ which could only be used at the company store. And, no surprise, the company store was owned and operated by the coal company itself. This gave the companies a monopoly on basic necessities such as food, often forcing families to make purchases on a tab, and leaving many in crippling debt. There’s a saying in Appalachia, “I owe my soul to the company store,” and for many miners and their families, that was a reality.  

Things have changed though, and mining has advanced a lot in the past century. Today, working conditions are much less harsh, and new technologies require less labor, meaningless jobs. But, this has made mining jobs even more coveted in the region. In Appalachia, being a coal miner is something to take pride in. In a region that struggles economically, coal miners make roughly $50,000 a year, which can provide a comfortable living for an entire family. This creates a major issue though because, fundamentally, in Appalachia, coal is bad for the environment but good for the people and the economy. And, often times in creating regulations, the people who feel the impact the most are blue collar workers. It’s the coal miners who feel it the most—the people who seem to time and time again be pushed down, whether it be by their own company or their own country. Despite our well-meaning efforts, a lot of the environmental regulations are putting economic restraints on a region that is already struggling.

This is our challenge. As Americans, we take pride in our country and its citizens. We believe in this crazy idea that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed. But, we also believe in science. We see what climate change is doing to our world, and we feel called to act. The challenge we face, though, is balancing these two things. When I first saw a sign for the “Friends of Coal,” I didn’t know how to feel. As a scientist, I know that coal is bad, but, although I may not be a ‘friend of coal,’ I am a friend of coal miners and a friend of Appalachia. And, I just don’t think that I can justify coal regulations that do nothing but hurt the region that I love. So our challenge is this: we need to both preserve our environment while also preserving, and better yet supporting, the livelihoods of the forgotten coal miners. Unfortunately, I have no easy solution, but it is conversations like these, actually talking about the issues, that will help us find one.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Sources: U.S. Department of Energy, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Mineral Resources, McDaniel College, Pay Scale