When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Adrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
They dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
And then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.

Coal was discovered in Kentucky in 1750. Since the first commercial coal mine opened in 1820 coal has gained both economic importance and controversy regarding its environmental consequences. As of 2010 there were 442 operating coal mines in the state.[1]

History

Tipple of Mine #31 in Kenvir during September 1946

Just two years after the first coal was discovered in the United States in 1750 explorer Thomas Walker discovered coal in what would become Kentucky and used it to heat his camp fire. Although his discovery came in the Eastern Coalfield it would be another 150 years before commercial coal production occurred there. In 1820 the first commercial coal mine in Kentucky opened in the Western Coalfield in Muhlenberg County. In its first year the mine produced 328 tons of coal. By 1843 the state produced 100,000 tons of coal, and by 1879 the state produced one million tons of coal, all coming from the Western Coalfield.[2]

In 1900 the first commercial coal mine was opened in the Eastern Coalfield in the community of Betsy Layne in Floyd County. Coal mining experienced rise and fall throughout most of the early to mid 20th century. The two World Wars made for periods of boom. The first was followed with a severe bust, brought on by the end of the Great War and then continued by the Great Depression. Following World War II, the drive toward mechanization and the Korean War pushed the industry even higher. However, railroads and households soon began shifting from coal to oil and gas for their energy needs, and the industry yet again experienced a downturn.[3]

By 2001 8.36 billion tons of coal had been extracted from Kentucky, 5.78 billion tons coming from the Eastern Coalfield and 2.58 billion tons coming from the Western Coalfield.[4] As of 2004 around 13% of total coal reserves have been extracted from the Western Coalfield, although much of the remaining 87% of reserves are not reachable with current technology. Around 19% of coal reserves have been extracted from the Eastern Coalfield.[5]

Two phenomena have resulted in a major reduction in the number of mine workers and number of mines in Kentucky[5]. First, increased mechanization in both Kentucky coal fields has reduced the need for labor.[6] This has become even more pronounced with the emergence of strip mining. Secondly, acid rain regulation found in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment has made Kentucky coal, with its medium to high sulfur content, less desirable. That amendment requires companies to either remove the sulfur through scrubbers or switch to low-sulfur coal, found in Western states like Wyoming or submit to fines for their sulfur production.[7]

While comparably higher in sulfur content, the Eastern Kentucky coal does have a higher carbon density than Wyoming coal, so less of it has to be burned to produce the same amount of electricity, thus producing less per capita carbon dioxide emissions. Eastern coal remains widely used across the United States.

The Western Coalfield has been hit much harder by acid rain regulations. Whereas about half of Eastern coal is high in sulfur content, nearly all Western coal falls into this category. In recent years the state government has been seeking to land so called “coal to gas” operations that convert coal into liquid fuels that closely resemble either natural gas or petroleum.

Economic impact

Kentucky’s coal driven low electric rates help land major employers such as Toyota‘s assembly plant in Georgetown.

Employment in the coal industry followed a steady decline from the 1980s up until the 2000s, evening out at around 18,000 for the past decade. As of 2009, 18,850 Kentuckians were directly employed in the coal industry, less than 1 percent of the total workforce.[8][9] Yet, when accounting for jobs indirectly involved in the industry, that number becomes much larger, nearly 73,000. This number includes education and service industry jobs in mining communities, employment from construction, transportation and manufacturing work that touches the mining industry, as well as jobs stemming from banks, law offices and engineering firms that did business with the mining industry.

 

Coal’s total economic impact is significant, with over 125.96 million tons of coal produced in 2006, making Kentucky 3rd in the nation for coal production.[10] The state supplies 10.6% of the country with coal for power plants, giving it the nation’s second largest market share.[10]

Arguably coal’s biggest economic impact has been low electric rates in Kentucky, which gives the state a competitive advantage in attracting industry, including those with heavy energy demands such as aluminum smelters and automotive plants.[11] This has also made Kentucky one of the largest consumers of energy per capita in the nation.[12] The state’s average retail price of electricity is 5.43 cents per kilowatt hour, the 3rd lowest rate in the nation.[13] In 2004 coal-fired power plants produced approximately 92 percent of the electricity generated in Kentucky.

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