WHEELING - An industry that fuels life in the Ohio Valley, coal mining has built fortunes, provided a living for thousands and claimed the lives of many during its roughly 200 years in the region.
The question now, particularly in light of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's stance, is what is coal's future.
In the short term, coal's future is strong, as nearly half of the nation's energy comes from coal-burning power plants. Alternative energy sources such as solar and wind can't make up the difference.
Coal miners for Consol Energy Inc. stand in Marshall County's McElroy Mine.
The long-term outlook isn't as clear, however. Recent EPA moves such as pulling the Spruce Mine permit in West Virginia don't bode well for the industry.
in the Ohio Valley
With all the environmental concerns surrounding coal, what is the future of the industry?
Strong for now, as coal accounts for nearly 50 percent of the nation's energy. However, recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actions may make the burning of coal harder in the future, which could mean the demand for mined, high-sulfur coal such as that found locally would decrease.
As early as 1830, coal was the most lucrative business in the area, records at the Bellaire Public Library state. "Coal Works" with company names like Heatherington, Morgan, Kelly, Barnard and Sullivan employed 300-500.
These men supplied fuel for several local glassworks, as well as for heating homes, schools and businesses. They dug coal from the hills using picks and shovels. Horses and mules pulled carts laden with coal along tracks to the mouths of the mines.
The process evolved through the decades, with coal operators trying a variety of methods. In Belmont and Harrison counties, "strip pits" are a common sight, marking the areas where companies used massive earth-moving machines mainly in the 1960s-80s to strip away the surface and remove the coal beneath.
Today, Consol Energy Inc.'s McElroy Mine south of Moundsville provides paychecks for about 7,200 workers. It is just one of Consol's two large mines in Marshall County - and the company recently invested in upgrading both.
Modern underground mines like McElroy have replaced tracks and carts with belt haulage systems. They also feature sophisticated processing plants, where computer operators direct the sorting and cleaning of coal.
Wheeling Jesuit University's J. Davitt McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration, said speed and productivity are increasing in West Virginia's underground coal mines, making them more viable for the future.
The continuous miner is one innovation making this possible. McAteer explained that previously, an underground longwall machine would cut coal from the seam so it could be lifted to a shuttle car that would take it away. While the coal was being hauled from the mine, employees would enter the void and bolt supports to the roof of the mine.
"The continuous miner now has basically combined the longwall machine with the roof bolting machine - it is remarkable," he said.
Much of the coal pulled from the earth this year will be used to generate electricity at plants owned by American Electric Power. The company uses coal to power our homes, schools, businesses, street lights, water treatment plants and much more.
That electricity is also vital to operations at Ormet's Primary Aluminum Reduction facility at Hannibal.
Some of the shiny black carbon is heated and turned to coke for steelmaking, where it is used to melt and reduce iron ore. And a few entrepreneurs are exploring the possibility of creating coal-to-liquids fuel production facilities, though none has yet been built in the Northern Panhandle or East Ohio.
Thousands of jobs at local steel mills - and, in turn, at the car dealerships, restaurants, schools, stores, etc. that serve the coal miners and steelworkers - hinge on the viability of the coal industry.
But coal mining has led to hard times for hundreds affected by layoffs and cutbacks over the decades, and records show it has claimed many lives:
In nearby Marion County, W.Va., a methane and coal dust explosion at Fairmont Coal Co.'s Monongah No. 6 and No. 8 mines on Dec. 6, 1907, has been termed the "worst mining disaster in American history." At least 362 men died, but McAteer estimates as many as 500 lost their lives in his 2007 book "Monongah."
Injuries and fatalities continue to occur in modern mining operations. In recent years, individuals have died in falls and vehicle accidents at mine facilities, and a group of three died while three others were injured when gas ignited inside an air shaft being drilled for McElroy.
On Jan. 2, 2006, the Sago mine near Buckhannon, W.Va., exploded, killing one and trapping 12. Days later, rescuers found 11 dead and one - Randal McCloy - barely alive.
On April 5, 2010, an explosion rocked the Upper Big Branch mine at Montcoal, W.Va., claiming 29 lives.
"Death still stalks the mines of America," McAteer wrote.
But the mines also still provide a livelihood for thousands in the Ohio Valley. From miners to truck drivers and riverboat pilots, the industry supports a wide variety of jobs.
In addition to McElroy, Consol also operates the Shoemaker Mine in Marshall County and Harrison Resources in East Ohio. Other local mines include: Red Bird West surface mine in Brilliant, Ohio Valley Coal Co. Powhatan No. 6 underground mine at Alledonia, and Century underground mine at Beallsville, all owned by Murray Energy Corp.; and Tunnel Ridge mine, owned by Tulsa, Okla.-based Alliance Resource Partners, in Ohio County.