National Geographic : 1975 Aug
make room for expansion of its Paradise Steam Plant. Mr. Peabody's coal train was not the culprit in this case. The TV people filmed a dragline and a few seeded spoil banks, then departed. With a hard hat and headlamp, I prowled Peabody's Alston No. Four Mine, and discov ered that underground miners of hard coal or soft all have their own particular hell. In Pennsylvania the men had been hacking at anthracite directly overhead. Here in Kentucky the bituminous seam lay dead ahead, but clearance was low. Miners worked in a perpetual crouch, or on their knees. This seam was just over four feet thick. I walked stooped and crablike, one hand steadying my hard hat, the other almost dragging in the coal dust. All the while, in the swirling dust and dancing lights of miners' lamps, I yearned for the luxury of full headroom. Mechanized Monsters Devour Seams At the face of the seam squat machines were at work. One, with a long chain-saw snout, sliced a horizontal gash in the seam near floor level. Another drilled holes for explosive charges. We retreated, and after a muffled thud signaled that the charge had fired, a lobsterlike monster wheeled up. Its extended claws gathered in the shattered coal like a gambler scooping in chips from the center of a table. From there, with a nearly permanent crick ANTHRACITE BITUMINOUS CALIF U LIGNITE,OR BROWN COAL Deposits of coal can be found in all but a handful of U. S. states. Those east of the Mississippi have traditionally been the major producers but, as the nation's energy needs grow, the West is beginning to expand its once-meager output. in my neck, I followed the coal as it flowed by shuttle cars and conveyor to the surface, at the rate of 6,000 tons a day. Nearly 90 percent of the world's coal deposits lie in three countries: the Soviet Union, the United States, and the Peoples Republic of China. Western Europe, less blessed to begin with, has been using its coal for more than a thousand years. Most U. S. deep mines use the room-and pillar method, taking part of the coal and leaving the rest as roof-supporting pillars. Roughly half the deposit is recovered. Europeans, though, get out about 85 per cent of their coal by utilizing a longwall sys tem. Two parallel tunnels are bored into the seam, then connected at the far end with a crosscut. From that point, mining proceeds back toward the entrance, taking everything between the two tunnels. As they progress, the miners use a controlled-caving method to collapse the mined area behind them. Strip mining, too, differs in Europe; land is limited there, and by law must be carefully reclaimed. In Germany's Ruhr Valley awe some machines as much as 650 feet long scoop off the topsoil and lay it aside. Later it will be put back and seeded. However admirable, the system can't be utilized everywhere. In the United States most coal seams are overlain with strata of rock, which must be blasted loose. But cer tainly Europe's attitude toward reclaiming the land can be emulated. Frozen in time, a fossilized tree rears 12 feet above a Tennessee coal bed. The tree, rooted in a peat bog some 300 million years ago, was inundated by spill from a nearby river. Sediment carried by the water eventually replaced the pithy inner core, then solidified into sandstone. Heat and pressure from successive layers of sedimentation slowly transformed the bog into coal.