Coal Mining in America

Today’s modern coal mines produce about a billion tons of coal each year for electricity generation and steel making. Coal mining uses state-of-the art technology and equipment to maximize safety and efficiency. These technologies include computer-based engineering programs, global positioning satellite (GPS) systems, monitoring devices, and environmental technologies for daily activities.

Laws and Regulations Govern the Production and Use of Coal
A broad collection of federal, state and tribal laws govern the mining and use of coal in the United States.  These laws and regulations guide the U.S. coal industry in meeting high performance standards for safety, operations, and environmental protection.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) was the first national surface mining law.  Enacted during the late 1970s, it has led to the development of strict regulations governing the coal mining industry.  In addition, the Office of Surface Mining regulates coal mining for environmental and public impacts, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulates coal mining for worker safety.

Other federal laws that affect the coal mining industry include:

  • National Historic Preservation Act (1966), which governs the preservation of historic properties throughout the United States;
  • National Environmental Policy Act (1969), which established a process for the federal government to address environmental issues caused by federal actions, including the issuance of a federal mining permit;
  • Endangered Species Act (1973), which governs the protection of endangered species;
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), which governs the control of solid wastes;
  • Clean Water Act (1977), which regulates the discharge of pollutants into water sources;
  • Clear Air Act (1990), which regulates the discharge of pollutants into the air.

 Other laws and regulations vary from state to state but typically include coal surface mining and reclamation laws, environmental policy, surface water discharge permits, constructions permits, air quality permits, solid waste disposal, and mine operating permits.

Safety for Miners
Thanks to an intense focus on safety, the coal mining industry’s incident or safety rate is lower than many other industries, such as construction and manufacturing. The number of injuries reported in coal mining has been steadily declining over the past several years, with 79 percent fewer injuries since 1990, including a 48 percent reduction in injuries from 2000 to 2013.  Advanced training, strong communications, and new technologies all contribute to ongoing safety improvements toward the industry’s goal of operating free of any safety incidents.   Agencies of the Federal government — the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — collect data on workplace safety, as shown in this chart:

incident rate chart FNL

The United States produces approximately 1 billion tons of coal per year, with the vast majority of U.S. coal production coming from large-scale surface mines. Both surface and underground mines have volunteer emergency teams that undergo extensive training to continue honing their readiness in first aid, firefighting, and other related skills.

Mining and Technology
The coal mining industry utilizes state-of-the-art technology and continues to pioneer technical advances. Global positioning satellites (GPS), productivity monitoring systems, and computerized dispatching technologies maximize safety and improve operating efficiency.

Fleets of large haul trucks, shovels, draglines, and large crane-like earthmovers make surface mining highly efficient. Some haul trucks are as large as houses, for instance, carrying as much as 400 tons of coal at a time. Large shovels can move more than 20 tons of coal in a single bucket… more than 10 times the coal you’ll use in a year. And dragline booms tower more than 200 feet high and can weigh as much as 13 million pounds. That’s about the same weight as 150 jetliners.

At underground mines, longwall systems have their own hydraulic roof supports for overlying rock that advance with the machine as mining progresses. The system uses a shearer that cuts 1,000 feet of coal into a single slice around 1–2 meters thick. Sensors detect how much coal remains in the seam while robotic controls enhance efficiency. The coal then falls onto a conveyor belt that transports it to a preparation plant for cleaning and distribution.

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