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Conflict Over Heating With Natural Gas Develops in Eastern Pa.

July 24, 2008

By Robin Acton, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 24–ASHLAND — Howard Smith pulls on a jacket and adjusts the lamp on his hard hat before climbing into the mine car.

He smiles as the car rumbles down the tracks into the cool darkness of the Pioneer Tunnel, an anthracite mine cut into the side of Mahanoy Mountain. For 35 minutes, he’ll give two dozen tourists a glimpse of what it’s like to dig chunks of glistening black coal from the thick veins running through the bowels of Schuylkill County.

Smith, 51, quit school in the ninth grade to mine anthracite and worked underground for 18 years. Seventeen years ago, he took the foreman’s job at the tourist mine, where he conducts inspections, performs maintenance and guides underground tours for some of the attraction’s 40,000 annual visitors.

“Coal, that’s it. That’s all there is around here,” Smith said.

People in northeastern Pennsylvania — the heart of America’s anthracite region — are shocked that Schuylkill County Commissioners Mantura M. Gallagher, Francis V. McAndrew and Frank J. Staudenmeier are considering a switch from coal to natural gas to heat the courthouse and the county prison to save money on energy costs.

The region that includes Lackawanna, Luzerne, Columbia, Carbon, Northumberland and Schuylkill counties is home to the largest known anthracite deposits in the Americas. For many who live here, anthracite mining is their heritage; for others, it is their livelihood.

“I’d hate to see something like that happen,” Smith said. “Everybody who walks up the street here says it’s the craziest thing they ever heard of in their life. But everything today is money and if they think it’s cheaper, that’s what they’re going to do.”

Staudenmeier insists there has been no final decision on the controversial issue that reached from the commissioners’ meeting room in Pottsville to homes throughout the region that is considered the birthplace of anthracite mining.

“We’re considering several proposals,” the commissioner said. “I think we need to do what is in the best interest of everyone and run the county as efficiently as we possibly can.”

Honeywell International Inc. submitted a proposal to switch from coal to natural gas boilers at the courthouse and prison, and install energy efficient lighting and a new phone system, estimating that the county would save $3.2 million over the next 15 years.

Taking an opposite approach, representatives from the Pennsylvania Anthracite Council and a Pittsburgh boiler manufacturing company, Combustion Service & Equipment Co., contend that coal is king. Natural gas, according to the council, will cost Schuylkill County taxpayers about $5.4 million more than coal over the next 25 years.

Opting for middle ground, PPL Corp., an electricity and natural gas supplier headquartered in Allentown, submitted a proposal that would include flex system boilers that could burn coal or gas, depending upon which fuel source is more economical. And the Pottsville-based Reading Anthracite Co., hoping to preserve the status quo, offered to sell the county coal at 10 percent under the natural gas equivalent.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Duane Feagley, president of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Council, a group that advocates for the anthracite coal industry. “They’re going to spend more by converting to natural gas.”

Paul Pack, an engineer with Combustion Service & Equipment Co., said anthracite coal is cheaper than gas and oil. It’s also more environmentally friendly because it is cleaner and produces less emissions, he said.

Anthracite, produced from decomposed vegetation that forms fossil remains that are sealed between layers of rock, contains a high percentage of carbon and little sulfur. Although difficult to ignite, the hard lumps of anthracite burn longer and slower than soft bituminous coal found in Western Pennsylvania’s coal fields.

The 2000 U.S. Census showed that 67,986, or 1.4 percent, of Pennsylvania’s homes were heated by coal. The survey did not indicate how many of the homes used anthracite, rather than bituminous, coal.

Natural gas heated 2,452,941, or 51.3 percent, of Pennsylvania’s homes; 1,217,155 homes, or 25.5 percent, were heated with oil. More than 786,600 homes, or 16.5 percent, were heated with electricity. Wood, bottled gas, other fuels and solar energy heated the remaining homes across the state.

Mark Major, executive director of the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, takes the ashes out of his 86-year-old mother’s coal furnace once a week in the winter. She has lived in the same house since 1961, and although the cost has increased, coal is still the most economical heating source for her, he said.

“Lots of older homes around here use it,” Major said.

Every winter, anthracite — characterized by short, blue, smokeless flames — is being burned to heat schools, hospitals and public buildings across the state, Pack said. The cost averages about $145 a ton.

Pack, using current costs from coal and gas suppliers, estimated that on a BTU basis, anthracite coal is about one-third the cost of natural gas and one-fifth the cost of fuel oil. Right now, natural gas costs $16.48 per million BTUs; coal costs $6.80 per million BTUs, he explained.

“We’ve installed quite a few coal boilers in schools and hospitals,” Pack said. “The numbers are a huge savings. The bigger the job, the quicker the payback.”

The anthracite coal industry got its start in northeast Pennsylvania in 1775 in a mine near Pittston in Luzerne County. Fifteen years later, deposits were discovered in Schuylkill County.

Nearly a century ago, anthracite mining paid the bills for thousands of families in the region. Expensive and dangerous to extract, the rare hard coal known as black diamonds fueled eastern factories during the Industrial Revolution and propelled the United Mine Workers union to power.

In 1914, anthracite mining jobs peaked at 180,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration. Three years later, production peaked at more than 100 million tons, MSHA reported.

In the years that followed, the industry fell into decline and by 1950, production fell to 46 million tons as operations shifted to surface, or strip, mines. The 1959 Knox Mine disaster in Port Griffith, Luzerne County, where a flood killed 12 miners when the Susquehanna River breached the mine, is blamed for the industry’s demise.

By 1987, production dipped to 5.2 million tons mined by just 620 deep miners, according to MSHA.

“Anthracite mining is not nearly the industry it was years ago. There are just a few small, individual operators,” said Christine Goldbeck, a former journalist who works in state government. She operates the Web site minecountry.com, which is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the Appalachian Pennsylvania Anthracite Region.

“There’s a lot of sentiment there. It’s like military families and steel families,” Goldbeck added.

In 2006, the last year for which numbers are available, the state Department of Environmental Protection reported that 695 people working at 112 sites produced 7,516,944 tons of anthracite coal.

The DEP reported that 14 underground anthracite mines employed 114 people and produced 270,773 tons of anthracite coal in 2006. Fifty-four surface mines employed 326 people and produced 1,965,377 tons of coal, while 44 coal refuse sites had 255 workers who produced 5,280,794 tons of coal.

Schuylkill County Deputy Sheriff Dennis Kane, a lifelong resident of Ashland who serves as its mayor, said the heating controversy generated a mixed reaction among local folks who are rooted in the coal industry but have become accustomed to high prices and belt-tightening.

People understand that the commissioners have an obligation to do what’s best for the taxpayers, he said.

“But with some, when it comes to coal, it’s a matter of pride,” Kane said.

Goldbeck called the dispute “a very interesting fight.” She said she keeps trying to rationalize in her mind how it will play out.

“Are we loyal to our ancestors, or will logic win? Most of us say it makes sense to talk about money and tax dollars,” she said.

Back at the county seat in Pottsville, Staudenmeier said the commissioners will consider all options before making a decision in the coming weeks. In recent meetings, Gallagher promised that the new system will be in place before the next heating season.

The commissioners indicated there may be room for a compromise, with coal at the courthouse and gas boilers at the prison and at the county’s Rest Haven nursing home in Schuylkill Haven.

With that in mind, Staudenmeier, who predicted a brutal winter because of high energy costs, said coal is still on the table.

“I recognize that we sit in the middle of anthracite region,” he said. “Shame on us if we don’t consider coal.”

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