top of page

Coal Mining in Kentucky

In 1750, coal was discovered in Kentucky. Since the first commercial coal mine opened in 1820, coal has grown in economic significance and sparked debate about its environmental impact. As of 2010, the state had 442 working coal mines and less than 4,000 underground coal miners.

Want to install solar plant on your roof ? Get a professional assessment done and the best price quote for your needs Contact us now !

Call us on 7082955224

Mail id:

Role of coal in Kentucky’s fame

In 1750, just two years after the first coal was discovered in the United States, explorer Thomas Walker discovered coal in what is now Kentucky and used it to cook his camp fire. Although his discovery occurred in the Eastern Coalfield, commercial coal extraction would not begin there for another 150 years. In 1820, the Western Coalfield in Muhlenberg County became the state's first commercial coal mine. The mine produced 328 tonnes of coal in its first year. By 1843, the state had produced 100,000 tonnes of coal, and by 1879, one million tonnes, all of which came from the Western Coalfield.

In 1900, the Eastern Coalfield's first commercial coal mine opened in the Floyd County town of Betsy Layne. Throughout the majority of the early to mid twentieth century, coal mining suffered ups and downs. The two World Wars ushered in times of prosperity. The first was followed by a severe slump, precipitated by the end of World War I and exacerbated by the Great Depression. Following World War II, the industry was driven further higher by the drive toward mechanisation and the Korean War. However, railways and homes quickly shifted their energy consumption away from coal and toward oil and gas, and the industry underwent another downturn.

By 2001, Kentucky had mined 8.36 billion tonnes of coal, 5.78 billion tonnes from the Eastern Coalfield and 2.58 billion tonnes from the Western Coalfield. As of 2004, approximately 13% of total coal reserves had been taken from the Western Coalfield, however a large portion of the remaining 87 percent were unreachable with current technology. Around 19 percent of the Eastern Coalfield's coal reserves had been exploited.

Two factors have resulted in a significant decline in the number of mine workers and mines in Kentucky. To begin, growing mechanisation has reduced the demand for workers in both Kentucky coal fields. This has been exacerbated further by the advent of strip mining. Second, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment's acid rain rule has rendered Kentucky coal, with its medium to high sulphur concentration, less desirable. This amendment forces businesses to either remove sulphur using scrubbers or switch to low-sulfur coal, which is abundant in western states such as Wyoming, or face fines for sulphur production.

While Eastern Kentucky coal has a higher sulphur content, it has a higher carbon density than Wyoming coal, which means that less of it must be burned to generate the same amount of electricity, resulting in lower per capita carbon dioxide emissions. Eastern coal is still extensively used throughout the United States.

Acid rain regulations have been far more severe on the Western Coalfield. Whereas over half of Eastern coal is rich in sulphur, practically all Western coal is. The state government has been pursuing "coal to gas" projects in recent years, which convert coal into liquid fuels that closely resemble natural gas or petroleum.

Economic Impact: From the 1980s to the 2000s, employment in the coal industry declined steadily, eventually stabilising at roughly 18,000 for the last decade. As of 2009, the coal sector employed 18,850 Kentuckians directly, accounting for less than 1% of the entire employment. However, when indirect employment in the industry is included, that figure nearly doubles to approximately 73,000. This figure includes jobs in education and the service industry in mining communities, as well as jobs in construction, transportation, and manufacturing that have a direct impact on the mining industry, as well as jobs at banks, law firms, and engineering firms that conduct business with the mining industry.

The total economic impact of coal is enormous, with Kentucky producing over 125.96 million tonnes of coal in 2006, ranking third in the nation for coal production. The state supplies coal for power plants to 10.6 percent of the country, giving it the country's second-largest market share.

Possibly the most significant economic benefit of coal has been the state of Kentucky's low electric rates, which provide the state a competitive edge in luring industry, particularly those with high energy demands, such as aluminium smelters and automobile manufacturers. This has also resulted in Kentucky being one of the nation's largest energy consumers per capita. The average retail price of electricity in the state is 5.43 cents per kilowatt hour, ranking third lowest in the country. Coal-fired power facilities contributed around 92 percent of Kentucky's electricity in 2004.

Since the 1960s, coal seams in both Kentucky coal fields have been increasingly accessed through a process known as Mountaintop Removal Mining, which is a type of surface mining that entails altering the topography and/or removal of a summit, summit ridge, or significant portion of a mountain, hill, or ridge in order to obtain a desired geologic material. Explosives are used to blast away up to 400 vertical feet (120 m) of overburden, exposing underlying coal seams. Excess rock and soil contaminated with toxic mining byproducts are frequently deposited in neighbouring valleys, referred to as "hollow fills" or "valley fills."

This technology, which employs explosives and huge gear, enables for more than twice the amount of coal to be retrieved per worker per hour than is possible in ordinary underground mines, significantly lowering the demand for personnel. For example, between 1979 and 2006, the number of workers in Kentucky decreased by more than 60%. (from 47,190 to 17,959 workers). Between 1990 and 1997, the industry as a whole lost around 10,000 employment as MTR and other more mechanised underground mining processes became more prevalent. The coal industry maintains that surface mining practises such as mountaintop removal are more safe for miners than underground mining.

Nonetheless, the environmental consequences of mountaintop removal have long been recognised as a hazard to Kentucky people and ecosystems. Valley fills have been shown to permanently destroy important habitats by water pollution and the encroachment of headwater streams. [19] Additionally, vegetation clearance and soil compaction caused by mining equipment contribute to stronger and more frequent storm runoff flooding. [19] In counties where mountaintop mining is practised, there are increased rates of mortality and lung cancer, as well as chronic heart, lung, and kidney illness. [19] These dangers do not appear to diminish following the cessation of mining or the completion of land reclamation.

Pollution caused by coal ash: Ash is a byproduct of coal that has been used to boil water. It is often held in tablets near the power station and later recycled by being used in cement mixing. One issue is that coal ash heaps are rarely covered and hence easily get airborne. When coal is converted to fly ash, the uranium and thorium content of the unburned coal is concentrated up to tenfold. Uranium from fly ash occasionally leaches into the soil and water surrounding coal plants, damaging agriculture and, consequently, food. Individuals who live in a "stack shadow"—an area within a half- to one-mile (0.8- to 1.6-kilometer) radius of a coal plant's smokestacks—may then be exposed to low levels of radiation. Additionally, fly ash is disposed of in landfills, abandoned mines, and quarries, providing a risk to residents in surrounding areas.

CO2, SO2, mercury, and lead emissions from power plants
Kentucky emitted 143 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2003, putting it 13th overall in the country.

While lead is not listed in the tables below for each facility, it is another heavy metal pollution emitted by coal-fired generators (Pb). Lead is a potent toxin that has a detrimental effect on human and animal health when consumed or inhaled, even in minute amounts. TC2 (an 810 MW-gross coal combustion unit brought online in 2010) emits lead particulate matter at a rate of 499 kg/yr (about 1098 lb/yr, or in human health words, approximately 498 Billion micrograms). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established a new standard for child lead blood levels needing intervention at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. By comparison, the mercury emissions from the TC2 unit are 1.3*10-6 lb/MWH. Assuming TC2 operates 24 hours a day for 364 days a year, the annual mercury output from TC2 is roughly 86 pounds.

Attempts at rejuvenation
Dr. Patrick Angel, a native of Eastern Kentucky, began his career at the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, where he instructed mining companies on how to remediate property that had been harmed by strip mining and mountaintop removal mining. These efforts included compacting soil and planting grass, which Angel describes as the "one plant he trusted to hold the ground in place." In 2002, scientists such as Dr. Angel recognised that the Appalachian woods damaged by strip mining would not regenerate despite rejuvenation attempts. With Appalachia, an area larger than the state of Delaware should have been densely forested, but was instead covered in grass. Dr. Angel spearheaded efforts to plant over 187 million trees on over 275,000 acres of former mining land in Appalachia after recognising this was an ecological tragedy. Dr. Kathy Newfont, an Appalachian history professor at the University of Kentucky, reacted on Dr. Angel's efforts, stating that " was one of the most optimistic things I'd heard about the region in decades."

Effects on human health
When Kentuckians who live near mountaintop coal mining are compared to those who do not, health disparities emerge. Mountaintop removal coal mining use explosives and heavy machinery to clear massive areas of topsoil, exposing coal ores beneath. Following the removal of topsoil during the mining process, sulphur and other trace elements such as arsenic, lead, and magnesium are exposed to the surrounding air for decades. These uncovered trace metals do not only damage the air; neighbouring rivers, in particular, are severely impacted by pollution generated by mountaintop coal mining. These contaminants are suspected to be responsible for rural coal-mining populations having higher than usual rates of cancer, stroke, asthma, heart attack, hypertension, and overall poor cardiovascular health. [ However, there are additional possibilities as to why this discrepancy exists. Socioeconomic constraints that Appalachian communities face can significantly skew average rates of chronic illness. A 2013 study indicated that persons living in coal-mining communities had a higher family history of cancer, more smoking habits, and a lower median income on average than test respondents living in non-mining communities.

Federal regulations have an effect.
According to Daily Energy Insider, electric utilities in Kentucky that rely on coal "are battling to remain competitive by converting their power plants to alternative fuels amid a downturn in the nation's coal business and in reaction to tough environmental laws."

For example, the Louisville Gas & Electric Co. (LG&E) and the Kentucky Utilities Co. (KU) have jointly operated the Cane Run 7 coal-fired power plant since 1954. They converted the plant to a "natural gas combination generating station" in 2015. It is the state's first of its kind. Big Sandy Unit 2, a coal-fired power station near Louisa, Kentucky, was closed in 2015 due to environmental laws. American Electric Power, the firm that owns Big Sandy Unit 2, is converting the facility to natural gas.

In2015, 87 percent of Kentucky's electricity was generated by coal-fired power plants; 7% was generated by natural gas-fired power plants. "In the coming years, more coal-fired power stations are projected to close," Daily Energy Insider reported.

The federal government proposed a new coal mining regulation that would attempt to balance environmental protection with the fact that the United States requires coal for energy. The rule is administered by the United States Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE).

The regulation is referred to as the Stream Protection Rule (SPR). On July 16, 2015, the Stream Protection Rule was proposed. For2015, the regulation would safeguard nearly 6,500 kilometres of waterways throughout the United States. According to the Courier-Journal, the SPR has drawbacks: it might result in the loss of "tens of thousands" of coal mining jobs and raise electricity prices for Kentucky residents. Both Democratic and Republican officials in Kentucky have criticised the regulation. Both the Republican governor and Democratic attorney general are opposing the rule. The Stream Protection Rule's text is 2,300 pages long.

Contrast Western and Eastern Coalfields
Kentucky's two biggest coal fields are around 180 miles apart. The Western Coal Fields are located inside the Illinois Basin, which spans Illinois and Indiana, and the Eastern Mountain Coal Fields are located within the Appalachian coal basin, which stretches from Pennsylvania to Alabama. The sulphur level of bituminous coal resources in the eastern coal field is lower, averaging between 1% and 2% by weight. The western half of the state's coal resources have a somewhat lower heat content but a greater sulphur content, averaging between 3 and 4% sulphur. Concerns about acid rain have resulted in Eastern coal becoming more desirable than Western coal.

Politics of coal mining in Kentucky
Both Republican and Democratic candidates for governor in 2011 stated a wish to preserve Kentucky coal. All three Republican primary candidates, David Williams, Bobbie Holsclaw, and Phil Moffett, indicated their support for both the Kentucky coal industry and mountaintop removal. On the other hand, incumbent Steve Beshear was vociferous in his opposition to federal meddling in Kentucky's coal sector, joining the Kentucky Coal Association in a lawsuit against the United States Environmental Protection Agency over mining permit regulation. [30] Beshear's support for the state's coal sector drew criticism for being too lenient on the subject. Some even went so far as to participate in a four-day sit-in protest in the governor's outer office in February 2011. Hundreds of people gathered outside the state capitol following the sit-in to advocate for mountaintop removal legislation.

bottom of page