Down in Washington, Pennsylvania, an hour’s drive southwest from Pittsburgh, one message can be found plastered on billboards, newspapers, even diner placemats. It reads: “Coal, Pennsylvania’s #1 Fuel for Electricity. Now Clean and Green.”
Those last words probably don’t spring to mind for citizens in the coalfields of northern Appalachia, where longwall mining thrives. A highly productive method, longwall mining yielded 176 million tons of coal in 2007—15 percent of total U.S. production. An estimated 10 percent of all U.S. electricity now depends on coal from longwall mines, which have grown in Appalachia and in Illinois, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.
But longwall mining is the most brutal technology yet employed to extract coal from underground quickly and cheaply. A hulking shearer, the longwall machine chews the coal seam and leaves the ground to cave in what the industry calls “planned subsidence.” Residents living above mines describe the effect differently. Says Rebecca Foley, whose historic house has been shaken apart by the shock waves: “It’s like living through an earthquake that happens in slow motion.”
Northern Appalachia represents that epicenter. In southwestern Pennsylvania, six of the country’s top 25 longwall mines snake below 138,743 acres of rural terrain—15 percent of the area. By contrast, the remaining 19 mines are scattered among West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and western states. Nationwide, no other place has as many operations—or as many citizens living above them—as southwestern Pennsylvania.