The Burdens of Coal: Air Pollution

Nineteenth century industrial processes such as steel making used coke as fuel, and this did not emit as much smoke as coal. However, it was more expensive, and it was only used because impurities in coal (especially sulfur) ruined the steel. The same constraints did not apply to the fires that powered the steam engines that drove pumps and machinery in factories, and these were universally fuelled by coal. The Dowlais Ironworks in South Wales had 63 steam engines in 1863, each driving a separate sub-unit of the works. Iron works owned by Sir Joseph Bailey in Wales burned 250,000 tons of coal a year. The railroads were powered by coal, and even the coal mines themselves had steam engines powered by coal fires.

By 1870 there were more than 50,000 coal-powered steam engines in British industry. No-one ever knew just how many there were, and some were of course much bigger than others and emitted more smoke. And coke was made from coal in a process that itself gave off large amounts of smoke.

Coal smoke was not only produced by industry. The British continued to burn coal in most domestic fires, at all levels of society, until the middle of this century. One of the most obvious offenders seems to have been the Duke of Wellington (grandson of the first Duke). In 1904 the chairman of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society lamented to a Royal Commission,

"Upon my word the Duke of Wellington's house is like a factory chimney in the morning, in fact, some of the factories do not emit so much smoke as the Duke of Wellington's house."

In 1948, 98% of British living-rooms still had an open fire, often combined with a stove. A quarter of all British homes were still cooking on a coal-fired stove in the early 1950s. The only factor that saved British cities from horrendous pollution was the move to the suburbs, which spread the pollution over a greater area.

Coal smoke is not only dirty, it carries sulfur and acids, leading to acid rain. But other processes were even more dangerous. The Victorian chemical industry depended largely on salt and acids as raw materials, and the industrial processes emitted large quantities of dangerous pollutants. To make soda for glass-making and for detergents, salt was combined with sulfuric acid. The emissions from such alkali factories included hydrochloric acid, which produced such acid rain that trees and crops were killed or damaged for miles downwind of large factories, and streams and sometimes rivers were polluted. Potteries emitted hydrochloric acid too. Sulfuric acid was manufactured by roasting pyrite ores, producing copper as well, and this industry made the Swansea area in South Wales one of the worst polluted areas in Britain.

The nuisance and the dangers of coal smoke were well recognized. Lord Palmerston commented acidly in 1853 about the problems of smoke abatement,

"There were a few, perhaps a hundred gentlemen connected with the different furnaces in London, who wished to make two million of their fellow inhabitants swallow the smoke which they could not themselves consume... Here were the prejudices and ignorance of a small combination of men, set up against the material interest, the physical enjoyment, the health, and the comfort of upwards of two million of their fellow men. He [Palmerston] could not believe that Parliament would back these smoke-producing monopolists."

A smoke-abatement law passed, but was enforced unevenly, and it was cheaper to pay fines than to install smoke-reducing equipment. As late as the early 1950s, central London was blanketed in such smoke that it received only 26% of the winter sunshine recorded at Kew, a few miles upwind. After a killer smog settled over London in 1952, vigorous action was finally taken nationally to cut down on all forms of air pollution, with the Clean Air Act of 1956.

The Burdens of Coal: A Victorian Tale

The New Hartley colliery, set among little villages in the northern English mining district near Newcastle, was one of the most modern in Europe. A large, new engine supported on a massive iron beam powered the cages that ran up and down the mineshaft, and a powerful new pump kept the mine drier than most.

However, on January 16, 1862, the beam of the engine broke, and half of it, weighing 21 tons, tumbled into the mine shaft, blocking it completely and trapping 204 men and boys underground. There was no surviving machinery to help rescue efforts, and the immense size of the obstruction meant that it took seven days of frantic effort even to reach the bottom of the shaft. In the mine gallery, uninjured by the events in the shaft, every miner had quietly suffocated several days after the accident, as their oxygen ran out. The miners had known precisely what their likely fate would be, and some had left diaries of those few days, containing their last messages to their loved ones. They had conserved air wherever possible, giving up lights, and lying down rather than moving about; they sang to keep up their spirits.

The accident trapped the complete working population of that mining shift. Some families lost all the males of working age. It's little comfort that a large memorial stone was erected in the church yard nearby at Earsdon (it's now a dark gloomy corner of the church yard, overgrown by trees). The names and ages of the dead are engraved on the stone: as many as four and five men and boys from some families were killed. Two of the men who died in that disaster were my great-great-grandfathers John Ternent and James Bewick (whose two brothers died with him), and the horror of the disaster was passed on orally to my mother as a girl, growing up in the same area in much the same tradition of occupational hazard. By my mother's time the mine had two access shafts rather than one, but coal-mining was and is a dangerous occupation.

The Burdens of Coal: Centralia, Pennsylvania

Coal mines were opened up in Centralia, Pennsylvania, when the railroad was built up the valley. Before long Centralia was like many other small Appalachian towns, with an economy depending entirely on the mines, and a population that consisted mainly of poorly paid, poorly educated immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe. The depression killed off some of the mines in the 1930s, and by the 1950s the rocks under and around Centralia contained a warren of old and new, legal and illegal workings, poorly mapped and completely unsystematic.

The crisis for Centralia began with an act of routine stupidity by the city council. The city dump was an old abandoned open-pit mine on the edge of town, just next to the cemetery. In preparation for the Memorial Day ceremonies, the council decided to "tidy up" the dump. In reality, this meant setting it on fire: it was done regularly in Centralia before Easter and before Memorial Day. It got rid of the smell and the rats for a while, and the Fire Department volunteers turned out to damp it down afterwards.

The fire was set in the normal way, on May 27, 1962. This time, however, the fire burned deep into the garbage, and was still smoking two days later, when the fire brigade doused it again. It flared again in early June, and the firemen now discovered that burning debris had fallen down an old shaft in the corner of the dump, into a labyrinth of abandoned mining tunnels. There was a clear danger that an underground coal fire would begin, if it had not already done so. A local contractor offered to dig out the burning debris for $175, but was turned down by the Pennsylvania Department of Mines, which had jurisdiction over the old workings.

By mid-July there certainly was an underground coal fire. The fire had plenty of fuel: not only the coal itself, but the old wooden gallery supports; and air reached it readily through all the old abandoned galleries. The fire soon reached 1000° F, and there was every danger that it could spread throughout all the old workings, which stretched for several square miles, including all the ground under Centralia. By 9 August, the last remaining coal mines around Centralia were closed down, because carbon monoxide levels were increasing as the fire continued.

Under instructions from the Department of Mines, a project began to dig out the burning coal. But as fast as the shovels tore into the old workings and excavated the burning material, the air rushed in and encouraged the fire. Essentially, the fire spread faster than the shovels could dig, and the project ran out of money at the end of October. Next, the Department of Mines tried pumping a slurry of water and waste rock into the galleries, to try to smother the fire. The boreholes to take this slurry, however, were drilled into the fire, rather than forming a seal around it. This project too was abandoned in mid-March 1963, with the fire still gaining. Next, a large trench was dug, to make a gap in the coal seam to contain the fire on its worst side. But by the time the shovels reached the seam, the fire was already past the planned gap: this project was abandoned in October 1963.

In all of this there seems to have been little sense of urgency: neither lives nor valuable property seemed to be at stake. Nothing more was done, in fact, until 1967, when a new attempt was made to protect Centralia by pumping in slurry into the galleries under the edge of town. The galleries turned out to be larger and more numerous than expected, and once again, the project ran out of money before the seal was complete. By this time, there were serious questions whether the cost of stopping the fire would ever be worth it, in terms of property values: in 1967 the equation looked like $5 million to save property assessed at $500,000. But no-one said that publicly at the time.

In 1968 people in Centralia began to suffer from unexplained illnesses (headaches, nausea, drowsiness, asthma) that can now be understood in terms of gases leaking into their homes from the underground fires. Many of these mining families had continued the century-old tradition of keeping canaries, which the miners used as effective detectors of bad air. Now canaries began to die inside homes in Centralia. Test boreholes in the town gushed steam, and probes measured temperatures over 800° F, showing that the fire was well and truly within town limits.

In 1969 the Federal Bureau of Mines began a project to blow waste ash from power stations into the galleries, as a better and cheaper material than slurry for smothering the fire. A trench 800 feet long and 50 feet deep would also be dug to excavate the coal fire along one stretch. The excavators reached the fire, and inevitably it was larger and more advanced than they had anticipated. They simply filled in the excavation without cutting off the fire. The Bureau went ahead with the fly ash "barrier", even though it was clear the fire was already across the city boundary. The barrier slowed the fire, but did not put it out. The Feds essentially abandoned the problem, because they had no more solutions. Centralia was doomed.

Silence settled over town for ten years, with sporadic monitoring by government agencies. In 1979 carbon monoxide meters were provided to a few families, calibrated to set off an alarm if levels approached danger. Soon they were going off almost every day, especially in winter when windows were closed more often. On December 6, 1979, John Coddington's cellar floor was measured at 132° F, and the underground gasoline tank of his gas station was at 58°. The next day the cellar floor was at 136° and the gasoline was 64°. The gasoline was pumped out, and the gas station closed. But that was the last wake-up call for Centralia, because Coddington's gas station was right in the center of town.

There was little effort to educate the citizens about the health dangers they faced, and the citizens themselves were ill-equipped to find out for themselves. The Catholic school played down the danger to students from high levels of carbon monoxide in and around the building, and the nuns unplugged the carbon monoxide alarm. Astoundingly, hardly anything was done, either for the health hazard, or about the fire itself.

On February 14, 1981, a boy named Todd Domboski walked over to look at some smoke coming out of the ground in a neighbor's yard. Without warning the ground caved in and he found himself falling into a huge hot pit. He grabbed on to a big tree root and was hauled out within a few seconds by his 16-year old cousin. Without the tree root and the immediate help, Todd would have fallen 300 feet down an old abandoned mine shaft to his death. By coincidence this happened right across the street from a group of visiting dignitaries, so that the incident caught national attention. For the first time, inhabitants and outsiders alike realized that there was now serious personal danger to people in Centralia. The nuns began responding to the monoxide alarm in the school, instead of ignoring it or unplugging it. New areas of subsidence affected the town, and on March 19 John Coddington was overcome by carbon monoxide in his home. He survived, but it was clear to everyone that drastic measures were now needed.

On March 30, the Federal Government and the State of Pennsylvania agreed to buy out at least some of the Centralia homeowners, and to relocate them away from danger zones. Along with that came news that there would be no more attempts to put out the fire: it would be allowed to burn itself out. In May, Centralia voters passed a non-binding referendum by a margin of two to one in favor of relocating the entire town: in other words, they wanted a complete rather than a partial buy-out, if the government was not prepared to attack the fire. But only a very local buy-out was authorized, and 27 families moved out in August and September 1981, even though they had been offered less than appraised market value for their homes.

In October 1982, monitoring showed that the fire was advancing further into town, and on its other edge, was sending steam out of the ground on both sides of State Highway 61 south of Centralia. Finally, on January 10, there was a collision as two vehicles ran through the clouds of steam into one another. The temperature under the highway was now 853° F. The highway was closed, and remained closed for five months. Once again, in August 1983, Centralia overwhelmingly passed a referendum in favor of relocation for anyone who wanted to leave.

By this time, every governmental body dealing with Centralia felt that relocation was the only viable option. In November 1983, Congress authorized $42 million for the relocation of Centralians, to be paid out of funds already allocated to Pennsylvania for cleaning up old coal mines. Although 2000 people left, some did not. The story was still evolving nine years later, when the State of Pennsylvania ordered the last 84 residents to leave within two years. "It's a grand place," said borough council president Molly Darrah, who had promised a long life for the town at its 125th birthday celebration in 1990. "If we're happy sitting on it, we should be allowed. It's a great little town."

The Burdens of Coal: Gas and Dust and Criminal Negligence

Underground mines are horrifying places to work: they are claustrophic, which is a psychological effect, and cramped (which means that physical exertion is done with the body held at strange angles, leading to injury or permanent damage). They are dark (psychological, plus accidents occur more often in dim light), and they are hot and often wet (again with a short-term greater rate of injury and accident, and long-term damage to the body). And these are only the chronic dangers: there is also the ever-present danger of a major catastrophe, from flood, explosion, or collapse.

So why would anyone become a miner? It depends on the alternative. Typically, a hundred years ago when job training began in one's early teens, a youngster had a choice only of the jobs available within a few miles of his home. In many mining communities, most adults worked at the mine, so there were few alternatives. Later, changing to another job was inhibited because most miners had only basic education, and often family responsibilities (to a new family, or to an old and/or crippled parent) kept them close to home. After ten years on the job, many miners were skilled, and usually paid as such. At this point in one's life, it was usually a dangerous gamble to leave the mine: one would probably find oneself doing an unskilled laboring job, if one could find a job at all. Perhaps as a result, mining communities tended to be close-knit, mutually supportive, religious, and strongly traditional.

Miners knew the dangers of the job, and those who could, often left. In the coal-mining branch of my own family, almost all the men were miners during the 19th century. But only one of my three uncles actually worked down the pit. One learned motor mechanics at evening classes and "escaped" to set up a garage, and one learned electrical systems at evening classes, to become an electrician at the mine, "escaping" by working largely above ground.

Water.‹If miners dig into water-saturated rock, it will leak out into the mine. Even slow seepage will flood a mine unless the water can be drained away or pumped out. In medieval mines, drainage was difficult and expensive, and most of the mines that failed did so because they flooded. Hillside mines were usually drained by digging channels or tunnels. In the 1400s, William de Eure took a lease on a mine from the Bishop of Durham, on condition that the Bishop would share half the cost if a new drainage tunnel had to be dug. If miners could predict which way the coal seam was dipping, they would try to drain it from as low a point as they could, and then mine the seam up the slope. This kept the working face relatively dry, as well as making the hewing easier and more efficient.

If it was impossible or too expensive to drain a mine, then the water had to be pumped or hauled out. At first it was simple hand labor: buckets on a windlass. In 1468 a horse-driven pump was built by the monks of Finchale priory in northeast England, costing nearly £10. Various mechanisms were introduced as time went on, but the problem was always expensive. At the mine at Bedworth in Warwickshire, sixty horses worked in shifts to keep the pumps going. Even so, mines still flooded. In 1676 Sir Ralph Delaval's mine on his ancestral estate at Seaton Delaval flooded, and he had to spend £2,300 on new pumps. It took six weeks to pump the mine out so that it could start production again. Only the introduction of the Newcomen steam-powered pump solved the problem.

In any case, the water had to be directed away from the mine, and that could cause problems if it ran unwanted on to someone's land.

Gas and Dust.‹Coal mines are meant to dig out a rock that has a very high content of organic material. This gives rise to two special hazards of coal mining that do not generally occur in metal mining. Organic compounds in the coal may slowly react with the oxygen of the air, lowering air quality. In addition, coal often contains little pockets of natural gas (mostly methane), which may leak out into the mine once the coal has been exposed by mining. Some coals seams are more gassy than others, so some mines are more dangerous than others. Medieval leases had clauses saying that rent was not paid while the mine was too wet or too gassy to work.

Low oxygen levels are fairly easy to detect. The miner's candle or lantern flame would burn low before the mine atmosphere became deadly, so there was usually enough warning to evacuate the gallery. Methane is much more dangerous. It is lighter than air, and will rise up to the roof of a mine gallery. If a miner now enters the gallery, carrying a lantern to see by, he may touch off a methane explosion that may injure him, kill him, collapse the entire mine, or open up cracks that flood the gallery.

The time of greatest methane danger is when the mine has been inactive for a time: at the beginning of the work week, or after a holiday, or after an accident has stopped active work for a time. A miner called a "fireman," specially chosen to be "a man of purpose," would wear protective water-soaked clothing and enter the gallery by crawling along the floor, holding a lighted candle on the end of a long pole. He would sweep the flame along the roof line ahead of him, deliberately trying to light any pockets of methane. He would touch off small explosions, saving the mine from the risk of large ones. Of course, after a long interruption of work, or in a particularly gassy mine, more methane would have accumulated, and people were killed in this process. However, even more people were killed if safety precautions were neglected, or if accidents happened that could not have been foreseen.

The invention of a lantern that would not ignite methane was a great advance, but it did not remove the fact that methane seeped into mine galleries. Mines were deeper by this time, and methane levels generally increase with depth. If methane was present, it would eventually ignite, from occasional sparks as hammers hit wedges, for example. Methane could be removed by good ventilation, but that is and was difficult to achieve completely. Miners would try to monitor levels of gas by taking small animals or birds down the mine with them: the "miner's canary" would collapse before a large human would, warning that methane levels were too high or oxygen levels were too low, and the gallery should be evacuated. Even so, accidents happened, and many miners were killed directly by methane explosions, and others died as explosions brought down roofs. Worse still, miners were killed when safety precautions were ignored or overruled.

AND THEY STILL DIE. In June 1996, three coal company executives found guilty of lying to inspectors and failing to follow safety procedures at the Pyro mine near Owensboro, Kentucky. Ten miners were killed in the mine in 1989, after methane gas accumulated to dangerous levels and exploded. Former general superintendent David Steele was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $3000. A second executive was sentenced to six months, and the third, to five months. It seems to me that the punishment is trivial in relation to ten human lives. In monetary terms, it values a human life at $300.

Coal dust, like any other dust, is harmful to the lungs. In the old days of manual mining, dust levels were fairly low, but many years' exposure to dust caused respiratory problems. Most people didn't live long in the old days, so coal dust was not perceived as a major problem. It rapidly became a problem as mechanical mining was introduced in the 1800s. The machines generated a lot of dust, and miners breathed in much more of it. "Black lung" was the symptom: the disease was emphysema, and many miners were crippled by it at comparatively early ages. The dust could be mitigated by better ventilation, but that cost money, and mitigation has always been resisted by mine companies. It is tragic to realize that payments by American coal companies to miners disabled by "black lung" were running at $1 billion a year in 1985. In the United States in the mid-1980s, more than 50% of long-wall faces did not meet Federal standards that require less than 2 mg/cu m of dust to be in the air. Mine owners routinely circumvent air-safety standards established in 1969 to regulate the amount of dust in coal mines.

In April 1992, Time reported that 13 companies and 15 people had pleaded guilty in Virginia to falsifying air samples to understate levels of coal dust. The companies face fines of as much as $500,000 each, and the individuals could be imprisoned for five years and fined $250,000. Prosecutors said many more guilty pleas were forthcoming.

ILLUSTRATIONS Water in a mine Methane - the man with the flame Methane explosion Miner with coal dust, or coal dust scars