Monday, April 21, 2014

Tech Talk - is coal that dirty?

So when was the last time, reading an article about the coal industry, that you saw a photograph of the land after the mine has closed, and the site reclaimed? Or, in talking about an oil or gas rig, how many times do you see the relatively small footprint at the site, once the rigs have left, and the site is reclaimed so that all that is left is the production tree?

The fossil industry tends to be vilified at regular intervals with very few voices raised to murmur slight protest as to the picture painted of its evils. The Economist had an article this week which said, in part:
And coal would indeed be a boon, were it not for one small problem: it is devastatingly dirty. Mining, transport, storage and burning are fraught with mess, as well as danger. Deep mines put workers in intolerably filthy and dangerous conditions. But opencast mining, now the source of much of the world’s coal, rips away topsoil and gobbles water. Transporting coal brings a host of environmental problems.
Note that there is no comment about putting the topsoil back in place after the mine has passed, or re-establishing the land fertility. Laws passed in the 1970’s have ensured that the land reclamation is to a much higher standard than previously, and reclaimed land in Ohio, for example, is now harvested for hay and used for pasture. And it was possible to get 43 acres of recreational land filled with lakes full of fish etc for some $107,000 only a couple of years ago.

Figure 1. Reclaimed mine land that was for sale in Illinois (MidWest Energy News).

Now it is true that working underground will get you dirty – in the same way as it will if you are working in the tunnels of a subway system, or on a farm, not to mention repairing sewers – but unless it is the color of the dirt that leads to the discrimination – working in a job that can get you dirty has not, in the past, led to the disapprobation that one sees in papers such as the Economist these days.

The concept of working underground by itself cannot, surely be something of concern. There are all sorts of buildings that have been built underground – either in regions where the site was first an active mine which then converted into offices, warehouses and storage facilities, or where the plan, from the beginning was to mine the space for a specific purpose (whether a subway line, an underground school or public baths or other useful place). For example, consider Springfield Underground which I first visited over four decades ago, and which can run up to 100 ft below the surface, although there are entries where trains and trucks can have access.
At 2.4 million square feet, Springfield Underground continues to grow; we have ample space available for your unique application. While we can accommodate all sorts of businesses, Springfield Underground is home to warehousing, laboratories, food storage, records storage and data centers. Our location is convenient to railways and highways – which makes us ideal for distribution centers and manufacturers.

Figure 2. Cutaway showing the location of available space at Springfield Underground (Springfield Underground)

By utilizing the space between pillars (shown in white against the blue available space) and building temporary walls work spaces of thousands of square feet are located underground where they are safe from tornadoes, which are a hazard for the state, at a constant temperature and in relative quiet and security.

Similarly there are facilities under downtown Kansas City and in a number of other locations around the country.

“Intolerably filthy and dangerous” – well that dates the information that the writer is basing this on. Of course there are the images and stories of the past:

Figure 3. The Penitent by Hildebrand

When I was young I lay on my side and worked with a pick and shovel in low coal, not that much different from the conditions shown in Anthony Burton’s “The Miners.”

Figure 4. Mining in Low Coal at Condering Colliery. (The Miners)

But that was over 50 years ago, when Britain still desperately needed the coal to fuel its restoration and modernization, and where there was also a provision to keep mines open to help with employment.

Now those narrow seams are largely not economic to mine (though there are ways) and modern coal mines use large mechanized methods to remove the coal, often remotely from the work force. But the image remains.

Increasingly mines are much safer, there is a fair amount of white stone dust on the walls so that, as well as being better lit, it is also just a brighter place to be.

Figure 5. A modern longwall production face (Maple Creek via West Virginia University )

While, in the unregulated mines of the past there were death rates of up to 1,500 or more in the United States (at one time explosions underground could kill all the miners underground at the time of the explosion, and this could add up to more than 200) there were 19 miners killed in 2012. And while one death is too many there are sadly other industries that have a worse record.

According to Forbes, the ten most dangerous jobs in 2012 were:
1. Logging workers

2. Fishers and related fishing workers

3. Aircraft pilot and flight engineers

4. Roofers

5. Structural iron and steel workers

6. Refuse and recyclable material collectors

7. Electrical power-line installers and repairers

 8. Drivers/sales workers and truck drivers

9. Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers

10. Construction laborers

Mining didn’t even make the list, nor of the more extended list of the 15 most dangerous jobs, as listed by AOL.

Sadly the industry has been stereotyped with an antiquated, and largely out of date set of images. (Though admittedly in parts of Asia particularly the low cost of labor and the need for both jobs and fuel can still lead to the odd dismal picture, yet even there, as regulations set in the picture is improving by the year).

One has to look no further than to the photographs of power stations that use coal to see the evidence of this bias. The only visible vapors that leave a modern plant are the steam clouds and yet in paper after paper the photographer has maneuvered so that, with the sun behind the steam, it looks grey or black.

These distortions are having less and less impact, as the real long-term need for coal is clearly evident, but it just makes the debates less honest. Unfortunately the image of underground workers are too often associated with the Trolls and Orcs of Tolkien's Middle Earth in contrast to the desired world where we see the contrast to the idyllic but unrealistic dream of us all living in the Shire in bucolic joy for ever.


  1. I thought of being a journalist so I could influence, now I realize how wrong I was.
    Ah youth. Critical thinking made to order.

  2. ... as if the consequences of mining coal end at the mine. From the article:

    "The only visible vapors that leave a modern plant are the steam clouds..."

    Out of sight, out of mine, eh? Not to worry that CO2, chromium, etc., etc. are essentially invisible. The coal doesn't just go away because it left the mine. There is no "away".

    Sorry, HO....

  3. GHung:
    At some point the models will be recognized as not reflecting reality - potentially within 3 years - it will be interesting to see what happens at that point.

  4. It seems to me that coal faces more and bigger problems outside the mines: (1) the courts will eventually let some version of the CSAPR stand; (2) the EPA is now under consent decree to issue regulations on ash disposal; and (3) the West Coast's antagonism to expanded port handling facilities. The first two are going to force a bunch of tough decisions on the operators of coal-fired plants, particularly in the eastern half of the country. The last one blocks the easiest access to Asian markets.

    I'd be interested in your thoughts on those.

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  6. Michael:
    I am not expecting the market for coal to be that great for at least a year or two, and then only as the limits to gas and oil production globally drive up the costs, relatively lowering the comparative cost for coal production. Politicians are locked into positions on this, and it will take time and some harsh financial numbers for those decisions to change.