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 Post subject: Anthracite still a vital part of Pennsylvania’s economy
PostPosted: Sun May 31, 2015 6:59 am 
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Anthracite still a vital part of Pennsylvania’s economy


Elizabeth Skrapits

Published: May 31, 2015

Black diamonds might not have as many settings these days as they did a century ago, but they haven’t lost their luster.

Although mining operations have scaled back considerably from the decades in the 19th and 20th centuries when coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and beyond, there is still a stable market for anthracite — the hard coal which Northeastern Pennsylvania has the country’s largest supply of — for heating and industrial purposes.

“Contrary to what people are saying, we’re still alive and kicking,” said Duane Feagley, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Council.

Anthracite, formed by higher temperature and pressure, has a higher carbon content and burns cleaner and hotter than bituminous or “soft” coal. The state has three large anthracite coal fields: the northern, which runs through Luzerne and Lackawanna counties; the middle field, which is in Carbon, Northumberland, Susquehanna, Schuylkill and southern Luzerne counties; and the southern field, which runs through Dauphin, Schuylkill and Carbon counties.

“It’s not as big as it used to be, but it’s still a vital part of Pennsylvania’s economy,” said John Stefanko, Deputy Secretary for DEP’s office of active and abandoned mine operations.

Today, about 95 percent of the anthracite mined is from the Hazleton area south, Feagley said.

Stefanko said there are 12 active deep mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania — in Dauphin, Northumberland, southern Columbia and, in particular, Schuylkill counties.

However, the Knox mine disaster of Jan. 22, 1959 put an end to deep mining in the Luzerne-Lackawanna county area. Twelve miners died when the Susquehanna River broke through and flooded the interconnected underground mines in the area of the Port Griffith section of Jenkins Township.

There have been about five new permit applications over the past five years, although none of them for surface mines, Stefanko said. The coal operators already have their mining permits for large areas, then seek bonds for the specific parts of those areas they intend to mine.

Anthracite production is unique in that operators are re-mining areas that were previously mined, Stefanko said.

Feagley estimates that 98 percent of the anthracite produced is from existing mines.

As far as DEP is concerned, reprocessing coal from culm banks is a benefit: It mitigates a hazard, as well as the environmental issues, Stefanko said.

Silverbrook Anthracite, an affiliate of the Casey-Kassa Coal Company, processes coal from anthracite blasted from a surface mine in Archbald and takes it to a breaker in Laflin, where it is separated and sized. The company also has a coal prep plant in the Nanticoke area.

“Everyone thinks oh, you just dig a hole and pull it out of the ground. It’s not that simple,” said Christina Kasa, whose family owns Silverbrook Anthracite. (The family uses an extra “s” in the original company name, Casey-Kassa.)

Kasa said mining involves permits, water sampling, bonding, visits from state inspectors and working with the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Although millions of tons of anthracite have been mined since John and Abijah Smith shipped the first commercial load of it down the Susquehanna River in 1808, there’s still a lot left: “We’re probably talking tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of tons,” Feagley said. “There’s still plenty of coal in the anthracite coal mining region.”



Production

With the goal of converting to “cleaner and greener” sources of energy, there has been a reduction in coal production as coal-fired power plants are closing or converting to natural gas.

However, since soft coal is mainly used in energy generation, “It’s definitely affecting the bituminous region more than the anthracite region,” Stefanko said. “There are ebbs and flows.”

Anthracite is unique in that production is relatively consistent, Stefanko said. He said that in 2011, 8.4 million tons were mined in Pennsylvania; in 2012, 9.6 million tons — overseas companies had mines flooded, so there was an increase in exports — in 2013, 9.1 million tons were mined, and it is estimated that 8.8 million tons were mined in 2014.

Of the anthracite mined, usually only 80,000 to 100,000 tons come from underground; the rest of production is split between refuse coal processing and surface mining operations, Stefanko said.

Mike Mellish, an industry economist with the U.S. Energy Information Administration, also says the use of coal for energy is ‘kind of in a decline,” but it is still a pretty big share of total generation.

The administration comes up with an energy outlook for 25 years into the future. Mellish said coal represented 39 percent of energy generation in 2013, and is expected to decline to 34 percent by 2040.

When it comes to anthracite, refuse coal — which Mellish said goes through preparation to become a marketable product as opposed to waste coal, which is burned as-is — is mostly used in power plants, to the tune of 10 or 11 million tons a year.

The game-changer for coal started around 2008, when natural gas prices plummeted, he said. That was about the time drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale started to take off.

There are also more renewable energy options, including wind- and solar-powered energy generation, Mellish noted.

Mellish said the administration sees natural gas prices beginning to rise in the long term, “which stabilizes coal in our long-term projections.”

But don’t expect new coal-fired power plants: The forecast calls for 20 percent of the existing ones to be retired without being replaced.

Mellish noted that the U.S. exported a lot of coal, especially from 2009-2013, when there was a big demand in China and India. The main market for coal has primarily been Europe, he said.

But, he said, “We don’t export a lot of anthracite.”

Stefanko said the main reason DEP tracks production is that all active coal operators across the country have to pay a fee to the federal government for the abandoned mine reclamation fund.

This money is granted back to the coal mining states based on historical production, and, he noted, “We have probably the largest historical coal problem than any other state, which allows us to get the majority of grant money.” Last year Pennsylvania received $44 million from the federal government for mine reclamation, Stefanko said.

He added that there were $1.4 billion in priority reclamation projects due to health and safety issues, and 5,500 miles of streams affected by acid mine drainage.

DEP works with organizations, including the Ashley-based Earth Conservancy, to restore former mine land. The Earth Conservancy is committed to restoring 16,000 acres of mine-scarred land, mainly through the South Valley region. The non-profit organization has already created multimillion-dollar industrial parks, donated land for recreational use and sold numerous parcels for construction of homes and businesses. Restoration and reuse of former mine land can help revitalize the economy, Stefanko pointed out.



Uses

After World War II, oil and gas became more readily available, and people replaced their coal furnaces, Feagley said.

But recently, when heating oil and electricity became more expensive, there was a renaissance with coal heaters, he said. Many people are choosing coal instead of oil or wood, and you don’t get the same kind of creosote buildup with anthracite that you do with wood, he said. Coal-burning heaters and furnaces are still manufactured.

“Often people pick up coal to help reduce heating costs if they have oil or electricity,” Feagley said. “We’re seeing that market remain steady and growing.”

Feagley also noted that about 20 years ago, sellers started bagging the coal, making it more user-friendly. Back in the day, coal was delivered by truck into coal bins.

Natural gas prices are lower, so it’s difficult to compete with that — but, Feagley pointed out, gas lines don’t extend everywhere, particularly in rural areas.

Silverbrook Anthracite sells coal directly to buyers, mainly for home use.

“I think the majority of our customers use it as a supplement to their heat,” Kasa said.

There are also older customers who don’t want to change over to a different home heating fuel, she said.

The company used to sell coal to Kingsford for use in making charcoal briquets, and sometimes sells it for use in landscaping, Kasa said.

Just as people don’t want to think about air conditioning in the winter, they don’t want to think about home heating in the summer, Kasa said.

But, she noted, “Summer is the perfect time to get your coal bin filled.”

It’s cheaper and there are no worries about it freezing into big chunks due to the water used in processing it, Kasa said.

In addition, rice coal, a popular size for home use, becomes scarce in the winter.

“We actually run out sometimes. I’m sure other companies do too,” Kasa said.

Feagley said anthracite has commercial heating and industrial applications, such as in steel manufacturing and sugar beet refining.

Since it is rich in carbon, the highest grade anthracite is used for water filtration, including in municipal treatment plants, Stefanko said. The high carbon content and the fact that it yields a high BTU when it burns make anthracite useful in metal smelting and fabrication, he said.

“There are a lot of uses still out there for it,” Stefanko said.



eskrapits@citizensvoice.com

570-821-2072

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