he two boilers at Dominion’s coal-fired Clover Power Station in Halifax County are about as close to a time machine as you’ll find anywhere. Each one is a massive 50 feet square and 180 feet high. Their thick, steel shells are designed to contain an extraordinary fire that can reach 3,000 degrees, stretch 15 stories and power 210,000 homes. Jamie Laine, 48, an engineer who has worked at the plant for two decades, offers a peek at the inferno by prying open a small hatch on a boiler’s wall. The searing light that escapes through the opening is
government and groups concerned about the environmental impact of extracting and burning coal, and the industry faces ever-toughening standards for emission controls. But coal provides the fuel for roughly half of the electricity generated in the U.S. today, and, according to an April 2011 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, will continue to account for the largest share of electricity generation for decades to come. Virginia’s commercial coal mines were the first in North America. Surprisingly, Virginians’ quest for coal began not in the Appalachian Mountains,
“The factories come and go, and they always will. But we’ve got to have coal.” blinding—solar energy that hit the earth hundreds of millions of years ago, stored until this very moment in the coal that fuels this conflagration. Coal is part of the fabric of Virginia, from the mountain hollows of the Southwest to the shipping terminals of the East, and for more than 300 years, the world has been unleashing the power stored in the rich seams beneath the Commonwealth’s surface. Coal is still mined in seven Southwestern counties: Buchanan, Tazewell, Dickenson, Russell, Wise, Scott and Lee. It’s here in this rural, mountainous region—where trains are heavily laden with coal, and coal preparation plants wait around every bend—that the industry, a mainstay of the economy, makes its redoubt and shapes the region’s culture. This shiny black rock has come under increased scrutiny in recent decades by the
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but just a few miles west of Richmond in Chesterfield County. There, in the Richmond Coalfield Basin (one of Virginia’s three coalfield regions), a diamond-shaped, 150-square-mile coal seam lies steeply pitched beneath the bucolic, rolling hills of Midlothian. French Huguenot settlers discovered this seam around 1700, igniting commercial mining operations that lasted two centuries and, in its heyday, supported as many as eight mines, which produced 75,000 tons of coal per year. Located on the site of these coal pits today is Mid-Lothian Mines Park, a 44-acre preserve, which was established in 2004. The park contains some of the few
remaining vestiges of Central Virginia’s mines— haunting stone ruins that suggest the dangers miners faced underground: flooding, foul air, roof falls and, of course, explosions sparked by the highly volatile methane released from the coal when the men dug into it. The perils of these early coal pits killed hundreds of miners in at least half a dozen major explosions in the 19th century. Their deaths, along with labor shortages and the end of the Civil War—which at first stimulated production to fuel the Confederacy’s defense industry (particularly the nearby Tredegar Iron Works)—ultimately doomed Midlothian’s mining industry, which folded completely by the early 1900s. The search for coal moved west to the Valley Coalfield, Virginia’s second coalfield region. Though several coal seams in the counties of Montgomery and Pulaski would produce more than 6 million tons of coal over 150 years beginning in the late 18th century, it was Virginia’s far Western frontier—the Southwest Coal Region—where explorers were surveying immense coal seams that promised untold amounts of energy for a rapidly industrializing nation. By the late 1800s, entrepreneurs found a way to exploit these Western deposits, which lie beneath 1,550 square miles over seven counties. Productivity skyrocketed when, in the 1930s, mechanization replaced more labor-intensive mining techniques in the region. The extension of Virginia railroads, including those of the Norfolk & Western Railroad, into the Southwestern part of the state in the late 19th century facilitated the shipping of coal mined in Southwest Vir-
Above: DTA coal car dumping operator Jonathan Teach. Facing page, clockwise from top left: Alpha Natural Resources’ Surface Mine 88; CSX train running east; Teddy Clevinger at Surface Mine 88; DTA coal terminal; Elbert Eames at Dominion’s Halifax Station; boiler door; mining boots.
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8/24/11 5:52 PM
Published on Sep 1, 2011
The October 2011 issue of Virginia Living is the tastiest yet, featuring our favorite pairings of cheese and wine, with every crumb and drop...