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Biggest Obstacle for Appalachian Coal Industry - More Workers to Produce Less Coal



May 13, 2017 - One of the biggest challenges for President Trump to fulfill his promise to revive the coal industry is that surface coal mines in Appalachian are unable to produce the amount of coal as strip mines located mainly out West, Tim Meko and Bonnie Berkowitz report for The Washington Post.

The average miner at a Wyoming strip mine can produce 28 tons of coal per hour, compared to about three tons per hour at a surface mine in West Virginia.

It also takes more workers to produce less coal at a surface mine, which means that Appalachian mines employ more people than Powder River Basin ones, but produce far less coal, notes the Post.

Most of the work at strip mines is done with a mobile dragline excavator, which can be operated by three people, and a truck, only requires one person. Underground mines require more workers, working at a slower pace.


Coal still accounts for 30 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S, reports the Post. “The problem for Appalachia is that when the market is squeezed, its mines often can’t produce as much as the vast strip mines out west, where coal is easier to access and the machines that harvest it can be as big as engineers can build.” Jürgen Brune, professor of mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, told the Post, “It’s an economy of scale. Smaller spaces require smaller equipment and that reduces the productivity and the amount of coal you can get with the same number of miners.”

Nearly half—45 percent—of coal produced in the U.S. came from 16 Powder River Basin mines in Wyoming and Montana, notes the Post.

Brune said “the coal seam there is thicker than 70 feet in places, far larger than the seam running through Appalachia, which tops out at around 13 feet. The coal is less than 200 feet below mostly flat land, an ideal scenario for strip mining.”