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Black Diamond

Coal. Old Norse Kol: Burning Ember. The history of this black rock is inseparable from the industrial revolution, the smelting of ores, further refined by the coking process and blast furnaces, providing steel for weapons and tools. The common technologies and worldwide dissemination of human artifacts with which we are familiar has largely been made possible by the extraction of certain sedimentary rocks which release the solar energy trapped in their molecules when heated to a certain temperature. Coupled with the invention of the steam engine, (which was originally employed moebius-like, to drain water from mines so as to be able to extract more coal and iron from deeper in the earth; these resources would undoubtedly be used to forge more parts to create new steam engines so as to extract more coal and iron so as to... The energy stored in coal was unleashed to power foundries and textile mills, railroads, great ships, the machinery of conquest and the general electrification of the night. Now entire empires depend on it.

According to a prominent Kentucky group promoting coal production, "All surface-mined land today is reclaimed equal to or better than it was prior to mining.ä When I read that, and thought back to the area we passed through on the Trace, I had to wonder what terrible catastrophe might have taken place there before they mined it. From where I observed, the angled heaps were reminiscent of the general form found in a typical land-fill dump, although these have the aesthetic advantage of being free of litter and benignly covered in vegetation. The article goes on to state that, ãCoal mining creates valuable lands such as wildlife habitats, flat mountaintops, wet-lands, and industrial sites where only steep, unproductive hillsides had once existed.ä So there... As a matter of fact, strip mining is apparently such an obviously good thing for the environment, that one mining company recently requested to use the controversial 'mountaintop removal' mining method on a knob adjacent to Kentucky's highest point, the 4,139 foot Black Mountain, home to at least a dozen unique and endangered plants and animals.

Mountaintop removal involves blasting and digging through hundreds of feet of soil and rock at the summit to expose underlying layers of coal. The valleys below are filled with the excess dirt, creating a plateau of sorts. This sounded like such a bad idea to organized landlovers that the company withdrew its initial proposal and instead, began strip mining on the side of the mountain instead. There, is that better? The infamous method of surface or strip mining requires the removal of topsoil and rock from hillsides so that coal seams can be exposed and extracted. The process produces acidic runoff and fills streams with debris. Nearly two-thirds of today's coal production results from surface rather than underground mining. According to a conservative estimate by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, mining operations in Eastern Kentucky smothered more than 355 miles of stream from 1986 to 1995.

As we move into the third millenium, the coal industry has replaced workers with giant, earth-munching monsters, and the overlying rock and spoil material is dumped into the nearest hollow.  Although illegal, this method of disposing overburden is less expensive than returning it to the shaved hillsides and mountaintops. So despite rosey claims of reclamation and improvement, the damage is still going on. In Kentucky alone, a mind-boggling 151 square miles of mountaintops have been leveled in the past 20 years. Over forty mountaintop removal mines are still operating as of the current writing.

Longhunters like Boone originally came into this part of Kentucky in the late 1700's to hunt for extended periods before returning with their load of skins and pelts at the end of winter. Some returned with their familes to settle in the wider valleys where the farming was subsistence at best, but the bounty of the hunt so close to home convinced some to make the move. Of course, once they were settled there, they tried to make a life for themselves by developing the local resources. Unlike limestone, the sandstone underlaying most of eastern Kentucky is generally devoid of beneficial minerals. Due to generally poor soil content, along with undeveloped transportation, crops from the large gardens and small farms in this part of the state were not grown for marketing outside the neighborhood where they were grown. Pioneers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries found marketable products in the regional geology: salt, iron ore, oil, tar, and saltpeter from subsurface sources. Coal seemed like good news, especially after they had decimated the forests to the point where it was getting hard to procure charcoal.

Before 1800, iron furnaces operated near Owingsville birthplace of junkie General Hood. These furnaces employed coal in the production of implements, and, a little later, in weaponry for the war of 1812, but this was somewhat of an exception. Coal was utilized as a heating source and industrial fuel only gradually prior to the Civil War. Up until then, Kentuckians relied upon the great eastern forests for wood and charcoal. Coal became a major focus shortly before the Civil War. Railroads opened up the richest sections of what is known as Kentuckyâs Eastern Coal Field in the early nineteen hundreds.

Coal in Kentucky

1750 - Dr. Thomas Walker discovers and uses coal in Kentucky.
1850 - 150,000 tons production.
1879 - One million tons production.
1950 - 82.2 million tons production.
1990 - 179.4 million tons- record production
1995 - KY employs more coal miners than any other state in the U.S.
1997-  Re-introduction of Elk into 14 East Kentucky Counties on post-mined lands
            the  only large free-ranging Elk herd in the Eastern US

Kentucky has been one of the top three coal producers in the US for the last half century. $3.3 billion is brought into the state each year from coal sales to 30 other states and 14 foreign countries, notably, Taiwan.  Utilizing some of the largest industrial equipment ever made, including shovels capable of holding 290 metric tons, the number of mining employees in Kentucky has been reduced by more than half since 1981, while production has only increased slightly.  These counties were already poor when there were jobs at the mine; now unemployment here is among the highest in the nation. Due to mechanization, modern production rates have reached an average of 5.7 tons per miner per hour, or nearly 46 tons in a single 8-hour day.

The stateâs remaining 90.4  billion tons of coal represent 86% of the original resource. Deposits which can be mined profitably with existing technology are called reserves; 'resources' are estimates of the coal deposits in a region, regardless of whether these beds are commercially feasible. In 1996, estimates of total U.S. coal reserves were approximately 17.6 billion metric tons÷about 988 million metric tons of which are mined each year. We are told that the present rate of recovery and usage, U.S. coal reserves -- the largest in the world -- will last at least 250 years.

Eighty-six percent of the coal consumed in the United States is burned by electric power plants; two thirds of the nation's coal is moved by rail. Coal generates 95% of the power in Kentucky and 55% of the electricity in the US. It  accounts for some 95 percent of the US fossil energy reserves. Siltation and acid mine drainage, the presence of alkaline compounds, and heavy metals from the mine waste polluting the groundwater are all detrimental to streams, rivers, and lakes, endangering species on both land and water. But if this overall environmental degradation and extreme uglification caused by mining coal do not move you, hold on; there are other serious problems associated with the burning of it, notably, acid rain and global warming.

Acid Rain

The exhaust from burning coal is typically projected up a tall stack, pumping particles of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide high into the atmposphere. These particles can be blown by the wind for up to four days and are soluble in water vapor. That means they can fall as acid rain or snow, killing trees and plants, and leaching minerals out of the the soil. These acidic particles collect in lakes, killing fish and threatening the birds and animals who depend on them for food. Burning coal also produces tons of ash containing sulphur which must be disposed of, and often pollutes groundwater.


Carbonaceous matter in the lithosphere converts into fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. When these are burned for energy, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Two hundred years ago the mix of gases that made up the atmosphere was relatively constant. The Industrial Revolution introduced new alchemical processes, more extensive agriculture, all of which led to a rapid increase in global population and a buildup of the gases which enhance the greenhouse effect were pumped into the atmosphere.

Concentrations of CO2 - the most important greenhouse gas emitted by human activities - are now almost 30% higher than before the wide scale burning of fossil fuels began. Scientists estimate that emissions resulting from buring a mere 7% of the existing stock of fossil fuels - will result in a doubling of pre-industrial concentrations of CO2.  Energy burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses, and power factories is responsible for about 80% of societyâs carbon dioxide emissions.

Mounting evidence: The snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere and floating ice in the Arctic Ocean have decreased. Over the past century sea level has risen 4-10 inches . Worldwide precipitation over land has increased by about one percent. The frequency of extreme rainfall events has increased throughout much of the US and intense rainstorms are likely to become more frequent. In 1990, it was noted that mountain glaciers are retreating almost everywhere in the world. The nine hottest years on record have all occurred since 1980, despite the 2-3 year cooling effect of the Pinatubo eruption in 1991. 1995 was the hotteset year on record. 1994 was the third or fourth hottest year on record. Ice cores in glaciers show that temperatures between 1937 and 1987 were higher than for any 50 year period for the last 12,000 years...

As the largest single emitter, US annually pumps 20 tons of CO2 per person into the atmosphere.  With less then 5% of the world's population, the US  is responsible for 25% of global CO2 emissions. The entire developing world, consisting of more than 100 countries and representing almost 80% of the planet's human population, is responsible for approximately the same amount of CO2 emissions.

On average, each individual in the US consumes 3 times as much energy now as in 1850. This would be significant in itself, but we also have 11 times more individuals. So at a 5% growth rate, the coal supply will last a mere 86 years. Meanwhile, the deposition of C02 and methane (CH4) into the sheltering skies continues to exponentially increase, complicated even further by the continuing depletion of the world's CO2-absorbing forests. Temperature extremes, changes in precipitation patterns, increased intensity and frequency of wildfires, floods and storms, the proliferation of pests and diseases, and even increases in air pollution associated with the greenhouse gases will affect both forest survival and growth rates. And it is meaningless to analyze these habitats without considering the life of the species of plants and animals living there which cannot tolerate rapidly changing habitat conditions.

Drawing CO2 out of the air and into biomass is the only known practical way to remove large volumes of a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. A forest the size of Arizona would seriously offset the buildup of greenhouse gases. According to the World Resources Institute, 80% of the forests that originally covered the earth have been cleared, fragmented, or otherwise degraded. Those that remain are located mostly in the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, Canada, and Russia. These large stands of relatively undisturbed natural forest are invaluable because they sustain indigenous cultures, shelter global biodiversity, store carbon, and serve economic, recreational, spiritual and aesthetic needs.

39%  of the remaining frontier forest is threatened by logging, mining, and other large-scale development projects. The exact magnitude of these threats is unknown because current global forest monitoring efforts are limited to tracking forest loss rather than changes in forest use and condition. Such "post-mortem" deforestation data are often of limited value -- by the time an area has been cleared or degraded, it is usually too late to do anything about it.

As Patricia Glick wrote for the Sierra Club, "Forests play a critical role in the natural carbon cycle. As trees grow, they absorb and store CO2 from the atmosphere. The carbon is released when trees die, are harvested, or are destroyed by fire. Curbing deforestation and encouraging replanting would help slow buildup of atmospheric CO2 and provide other environmental benefits, including the protection of watersheds, the provision of habitat for wildlife, and the preservation of areas for recreational use."