Coal mining in Kentucky

Coal mining in Kentucky

Coal was discovered in Kentucky in 1750. Since the first commercial coal mine opened in 1820 coal has gained both economic importance and controversy regarding its environmental consequences. As of 2010 there are 442 operating coal mines in the state.[1]



Just two years after the first coal was discovered in the United States in 1750 explorer Thomas Walker discovered coal in what would become Kentucky and used it to heat his camp fire. Although his discovery came in the Eastern Coalfield it would be another 150 years before commercial coal production occurred there. In 1820 the first commercial coal mine in Kentucky opened in the Western Coalfield in Muhlenberg County. In its first year the mine produced 328 tons of coal. By 1843 the state produced 100,000 tons of coal produced, and by 1879 the state produced one million tons of coal, all coming from the Western Coalfield.[2]

In 1900 the first commercial coal was opened in the Eastern Coalfield in the community of Betsy Lane in Floyd County. Coal mining experienced rise and fall throughout most of the early to mid 20th century. The two World Wars made for periods of boom. The first was followed with a severe bust, brought on by the end of the Great War and then continued by the Great Depression. Following World War II, the drive toward mechanization and the Korean War pushed the industry even higher. However, railroads and households soon began shifting from coal to oil and gas for their energy needs, and the industry yet again experienced a downturn.[3]

By 2001 8.36 billion tons of coal had been extracted from Kentucky, 5.78 billion tons coming from the Eastern Coalfield and 2.58 billion tons coming from the Western Coalfield.[4] As of 2004 around 13% of total coal reserves have been extracted from the Western Coalfield, although much of the remaining 87% of reserves are not reachable with current technology. Around 19% of coal reserves have been extracted from the Eastern Coalfield.[5]

Two phenomena have resulted in a major reduction in the number of mine workers and number of mines in Kentucky[5]. First, increased mechanization in both Kentucky coal fields has reduced the need for labor.[6] This has become even more pronounced with the emergence of strip mining. Secondly, acid rain regulation found in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment has made Kentucky coal, with its medium to high sulfur content, less desirable. That amendment requires companies to either remove the sulfur through scrubbers or switch to low-sulfur coal, found in Western states like Wyoming or submit to fines for their sulfur production.[7]

While comparably higher in sulfur content, the Eastern Kentucky coal does have a higher carbon density than Wyoming coal, so less of it has to be burned to produce the same amount of electricity, thus producing less per capita carbon dioxide emissions. Eastern coal remains widely used across the United States.

The Western Coalfield has been hit much harder by acid rain regulations. Whereas about half of Eastern coal is high in sulfur content, nearly all Western coal falls into this category. In recent years the state government has been seeking to land so called "coal to gas" operations that convert coal into liquid fuels that closely resemble either natural gas or petroleum.

Economic impact

Kentucky's coal driven low electric rates help land major employers such as Toyota's assembly plant in Georgetown

Employment in the coal industry followed a steady decline from the 1980s up until the 2000s, evening out at around 18,000 for the past decade. As of 2009, 18,850 Kentuckians were directly employed in the coal industry, less than 1 percent of the total workforce.[8][9] Yet, when accounting for jobs indirectly involved in the industry, that number becomes much larger, nearly 73,000. This number includes education and service industry jobs in mining communities, employment from construction, transportation and manufacturing work that touches the mining industry, as well as jobs stemming from banks, law offices and engineering firms that did business with the mining industry.

Coal’s total economic impact is significant, with over 125.96 million tons of coal produced in 2006, making Kentucky 3rd in the nation for coal production.[10] The state supplies 10.6% of the country with coal for power plants, giving it the nation’s second largest market share.[10]

Arguably coal’s biggest economic impact has been low electric rates in Kentucky, which gives the state a competitive advantage in attracting industry, including those with heavy energy demands such as aluminum smelters and automotive plants.[11] This has also made Kentucky one of the largest consumers of energy per capita in the nation.[12] The state's average retail price of electricity is 5.43 cents per kilowatt hour, the 3rd lowest rate in the nation.[13] In 2004 coal fired power plants produced approximately 92 percent of the electricity generated in Kentucky.

Environmental impact

  • Mountaintop removal mining
A strip mine in Martin County

Starting in the 1960s coal seams in both Kentucky coal fields have been increasingly accessed via a method known as Mountaintop Removal Mining, which is a form of surface mining that involves the topographical alteration and/or removal of a summit, summit ridge, or significant portion of a mountain, hill, or ridge in order to obtain a desired geologic material. The process involves blasting with explosives to remove up to 400 vertical feet (120 m) of overburden to expose underlying coal seams. Excess rock and soil laden with toxic mining byproducts are often dumped into nearby valleys, in what are called "holler fills" or "valley fills."

This method allows, through the use of explosives and large machinery, more than two and a half times as much coal can be extracted per worker per hour than in traditional underground mines,[14] thus greatly reducing the need for workers. In Kentucky, for example, the number of workers has declined over 60% from 1979 to 2006 (from 47,190 to 17,959 workers).[15] thus greatly reducing the need for workers. In Kentucky, for example, the number of workers has declined over 60% from 1979 to 2006 (from 47,190 to 17,959 workers).[15] The industry overall lost approximately 10,000 jobs from 1990 to 1997, as MTR and other more mechanized underground mining methods became more widely used.[16] The coal industry asserts that surface mining techniques, such as mountaintop removal, are safer for miners than sending miners underground.[17]

Yet, the environmental implications of mountaintop removal have been widely accepted as an eminent threat to Kentucky communities and ecosystems. Valley fills have been found to cause the permanent loss of critical ecosystems through water pollution and the burial of headwater streams.[18] Furthermore, vegetation removal and soil compaction from mining equipment both contribute to stronger and more frequent flooding from storm runoff.[18] As for human health in counties involved in mountaintop mining, there is are elevated rates for mortality and lung cancer as well as for chronic heart, lung and kidney disease.[18] These threats do not appear to go away after mining has ceased nor after land reclamation has taken place.

  • Coal ash pollution
Mounds of coal ash located across the street from a residential neighborhood in Louisville

Ash is the waste product of coal that has been used to boil water. Typically it is stored in pills next to the power plant and then recycled through use in cement mixing. A major problem is that the mounds of coal ash are rarely covered and easily become airborne. When coal is burned into fly ash the uranium and thorium in the unburned coal are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels. Fly ash uranium sometimes leaches into the soil and water surrounding a coal plant, affecting cropland and, in turn, food. People living within a "stack shadow"—the area within a half- to one-mile (0.8- to 1.6-kilometer) radius of a coal plant's smokestacks—might then ingest small amounts of radiation. Fly ash is also disposed of in landfills and abandoned mines and quarries, posing a potential risk to people living around those areas.

  • Power plant emissions of CO2, SO2, and Mercury

In 2003, Kentucky emitted 143 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, ranking it 13th in the nation overall.[19]

Differences between Western and Eastern Coalfields

Kentucky's two major coal fields are separated by around 180 miles. The Western Coal Fields is part of a larger field which extends into Illinois and Indiana, while the Eastern Mountain Coal Fields is part of the Appalachian coal basin which extends from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Bituminous coal deposits in the eastern coal field are lower in sulfur content, averaging between 1 and 2 percent by weight. Coal deposits from the western part of the state are slightly lower in heat content but higher in sulfur, averaging between 3 and 4 percent sulfur.[20] Concerns over acid rain have meant that Eastern coal has become preferable to Western coal.

Coal mining in Kentucky politics

Both Republican Party and Democratic Party candidates in the 2011 gubernatorial election have expressed their desire to maintain Kentucky coal. All three Republican primary candidates, David Williams, Bobby Holsclaw, Phil Moffett, have stated that they support not only the Kentucky coal industry but also the practice of mountaintop removal.[21] On the other side, incumbent Steve Beshear has been outspoken in his criticism of federal intervention in Kentucky's coal industry, even joining the Kentucky Coal Association in a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over control of mining permits.[22] Beshear's support of the state's coal industry has brought criticism of the governor as being too lax on the issue.[23] In February 2011, some even went so far as to take part in a four-day sit-in protest in the governor's outer office. Following the sit-in, hundreds of others gathered outside the state Capitol to promote mountaintop removal legislation.[24]

Coal extraction and remaining reserves by county

Western Coalfield[6]

County Millions of tons of coal extracted Millions of tons of coal remaining
Butler County 30.2 353.29
Daviess County 62.33 1,205.66
Henderson County 76.12 6,700.53
Hopkins County 781.80 7251.20
McLean County 19.73 3536.95
Muhlenberg County 749.83 3224.18
Ohio County 266.72 1291.11
Union County 332.21 5,842.56
Webster County 317.11 5,688.73

Eastern Coalfield[6]

County Millions of tons of coal extracted Millions of tons of coal remaining
Bell County 302.69 2589.32
Boyd County 19.93 590.82
Breathitt County 208.47 3695.26
Carter County 18.61 464.74
Clay County 61.87 1412.37
Elliott County 9.87 296.58
Floyd County 459.68 3248.72
Greenup County 10.42 184.03
Harlan County 917.66 6045.80
Jackson County 11.31 353.25
Johnson County 97.56 1224.32
Knott County 329.90 3725.30
Knox County 75.51 1230.91
Laurel County 35.95 336.14
Lawrence County 26.81 1971.06
Lee County 8.49 347.00
Leslie County 259.17 3036.31
Letcher County 558.17 2576.46
McCreary County 55.34 334.29
Magoffin County 55.77 1857.56
Martin County 391.28 2537.41
Morgan County 15.22 818.96
Owsley County 10.02 554.10
Perry County 593.36 2409.98
Pike County 1420.07 8551.56
Whitley County 91.40 804.64
Wolfe County 7.16 429.60

List of coal fired power plants in Kentucky

Name Location MW Capacity Annual CO2 emissions Annual SO2 emissions Annual NOx emissions Annual Mercury emissions
Big Sandy Power Plant Louisa 1,097 6,830,275 tons 46,476 tons 13,851 tons 281 pounds
Cane Run Station Louisville 645 3,853,535 tons 17,122 tons 6,791 tons 96 pounds
Coleman Station Hawesville 521 3,404,057 tons 10,899 tons 5,320 tons 110 pounds
Cooper Power Station Somerset 341 1,931,758 tons
Dale Power Station Winchester 195 1,186,544 tons
E. W. Brown Generating Station Harrodsburg 739 3,978,892 tons 45,191 tons 6,683 tons 161 pounds
East Bend Generating Station Florence 669 4,671,336 tons 3,947 tons 5,400 tons 86 pounds
Elmer Smith Station Owensboro 445 2,846,615 tons 2,525 tons 7,045 tons 59 pounds
Ghent generating Station Warsaw 2,000 12,933,318 tons 49,913 tons 14,318 tons 413 pounds
Green River Generating Station Central City 189 1,169,616 tons
Green Station Central City 528 3,923,035 tons
Henderson Station Henderson 365 2,467,124 tons
Mill Creek Station Louisville 1,717 10,089,535 tons 25,464 tons 12,594 tons 361 pounds
Paradise Fossil Plant Central City 2,558 15,497,610 tons 83,926 tons 43,022 tons 490 pounds
Robert Reid Power Station Central City 96 438,984 tons 9,280 tons 1,097 tons
Shawnee Fossil Plant Paducah 1,750 10,527,302 tons 35,815 tons 18,216 tons 180 pounds
Spurlock Power Station Maysville 1,346 8,105,061 tons 38,877 tons 8,125 tons 300 pounds
Trimble County Generating Station Bedford 514 4,107,397 tons 830 tons 3,981 tons 203 pounds
Tyrone Generating Station Versailles 135 468,036 tons 3,192 tons 955 tons
Wilson Station (Power Plant) Wickliffe 440 3,758,819 tons 9,306 tons 5,773 tons 131 pounds
TOTAL N/A 16,290 102,656,885 ' ' '

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Kleber, John E. (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia. University Press of Kentucky.  By the mid 1950s, surface mining became the response to lower coal prices and lower demand. The process involved fewer workers and no “mining” in the traditional sense. It was during this time that the first strip mine control bill was enacted.Kleber, John E. (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia. University Press of Kentucky. 
  4. ^ url=
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ "The Facts", America's Power, accessed June 2008.
  14. ^ "The Facts", America's Power, accessed March 2011.
  15. ^ a b "Most Requested Statistics - U.S. Coal Industry" (PDF). National Mining Association. Retrieved December 1, 2007. 
  16. ^ "Online KY Coal Facts". Kentucky Office of Energy Policy, Division of Fossil Fuels & Utility Services. Retrieved December 28, 2009. 
  17. ^ Banerjee, Neela (2006-10-28). "Taking On a Coal Mining Practice as a Matter of Faith". The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-10-28. 
  18. ^ a b c M.A. Palmer; E. S. Bernhardt; et al. (2010). "Mountaintop Mining Consequences". Science 327 (5962): 148–149. doi:10.1126/science.1180543. Retrieved 2011-03-25. 
  19. ^ "Texas, Wyoming lead in emissions", USA Today, June 2, 2007.
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^

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