History of Coal Mining in Appalachia

From the beginning of coal mining in colonial times in the United States until the present, the mining of coal has had severe and lasting impacts on the people who mined it and on the environment from which it was extracted.

Over 125,000 miners have died from explosions, roof falls, and other accidents in American coal mines. Roughly double that number, an estimated 250,000 miners, have died from black lung or related respiratory diseases.

Coal mining has been responsible for over three million disabling injuries, a significant number of which resulted in permanent disability (either total or partial). Another 750,000 or so miners developed respiratory problems as a result of exposure to coal dust.

If the various estimates on the number of miners killed by black lung disease is even roughly correct, more American miners died in the 20th century as a result of their work than did American soldiers in all the wars in the 20th century, civilization’s most bloody century.

And in the nation’s most dangerous mines, such as the mines in the slave-worked Richmond coalfields, the southern “convict” mines in which former slaves convicted of petty offenses were forced to mine coal following the Civil War, and the anthracite mines in eastern Pennsylvania in the late 19th century, the risk of death or injury was at least as great, and in certain mines greater, than the risks faced by American soldiers in combat zones. Throughout almost all American history, coal mining has been the most dangerous of all occupations.

This result was not necessary in order for the coal industry to meet the country’s demand for coal at any period in American history. Many of the external impacts could have been significantly mitigated using the technology of the time, and in some cases, the impacts could have been eliminated without affecting the supply of coal necessary to meet the country’s energy needs or raising the price of coal so high that the fuel would become noncompetitive.

Rock dusting a coal mine, testing for methane gas, and providing adequate roof control are all good examples of measures that do not cost a great deal but which, if followed, would have had a major impact on the level of safety and health in U.S. mines during all historical periods.

The result of the economics of coal mining and legal system in the country was that for well over two centuries the miners and the people in the coalfields effectively subsidized American society and the American economy by bearing the severe external “costs” of mining, and those costs were extraordinary.

The environmental impacts of mining in Applachia were severe – at least 10,000 miles of streams were polluted by acid runoff, another 10,000 miles of streams adversely impacted by sediment, thousands of miles of landslides- many on steep Appalachian slopes, 25,000 miles of unreclaimed highwalls, hundreds of mountains and ridges decapitated in the name of mountain top removal, uncontrolled and devastating floods, damaged roads, coal waste fires lasting for decades, deadly waste dam collapses such as Buffalo Creek, and large-scale deforestation of much of the Appalachian region, once home to one of the world’s most diverse and unique hardwood forests.

And the direct impacts of mining discussed above, however massive, do not include the deprivation and chronic poverty suffered by millions in the coal fields in the devastating “busts” that repeatedly occurred as part of the economic cycle of boom and bust that has plagued the American coal industry from the outset of mining. Nor do the direct impacts of mining include the environmental damage caused by the combustion of coal, such as acid rain, global warming and the like.

Were these impacts of mining inevitable result of mining, that is, the price to be paid, however unequally distributed it might be, to produce the coal needed to industrialize a nation? If these external impacts, or at least some of them, were not economically necessary to produce the coal, then the question becomes, why did such impacts occur and why did they endure? What set of political, economic and legal factors combined to allow such severe external impacts to continue over such a long period of time?

The answers to these questions are not simple. An interplay of forces determined the nature and the extent of the harm that mining would inflict on the miners, the people, and the land and water of the coalfields. Certain of these factors remained remarkably consistent across historical periods.

First, there was the chronic overcapacity and overdevelopment that has characterized the American coal industry throughout its history. The vastness of U.S. coal reserves, easy access to those reserves, favorable mining conditions, and low barriers to entry into the coal industry all played important roles in creating chronic overcapacity and overproduction in the American coal industry. In turn, the industry’s chronic overcapacity and the economic pressures it created had a continuing, and at times an almost controlling impact on the manner in which coal was mined, where it was mined and the nature and extent of the impacts that would result from the mining.

Map of U.S. coal regions
(Source: coaleducation.org)


Conversely, certain factors influencing the impacts of mining changed dramatically from historical period to historical period, most notably the technology used to extract the coal. Not surprisingly, the particular mining technology and mining method that was to extract the coal utilized in each historical period, whether by underground or surface methods, was perhaps the primary determinant of the nature and severity of the external impacts that would result from the mining activity.

Almost without exception, new mining technologies and mining methods were adopted for the purpose of lowering costs and improving productivity. The impacts of the new technology on the health and safety conditions of the miners or on the coalfield environment was typically unplanned, largely unknown and, at best, of minor importance to the economic and productivity goals that the new technology was supposed to achieve.

For example, the introduction of the coal cutting machine in underground mines in the late 19th and early 20th century greatly speeded up the extraction process, reduced the labor needed to mine coal, and eliminated the need to undercut the coal by hand, a dangerous and sometimes fatal task. But, at the same time, operation of the new machine created more coal dust, new problems with roof control, and new machine-related injury and death risks in the cramped space at the coal face.

Similarly, the introduction of the continuous miner in the 1950s greatly improved productivity, combining several steps in the conventional mining method into a more continuous and faster method of mining. The continuous miner eliminated the dangerous process of using explosives to break the coal from the coal face, thus removing a major ignition source of methane and coal dust explosions. However, the continuous miner also increased the level of coal dust in a mine dramatically, created a new type of machine-related risk, and introduced a new ignition source for methane ignitions and explosions (sparks created by the continuous miner’s steel bits striking solid rock). So it was to be for almost all technology introduced into the mining process.

Even the introduction of safety oriented technology such as the hard hat and the permissible (non-explosive) safety lamp produced unintended and sometimes adverse safety and health effects that were not anticipated. The flame safety lamp, for example, which effectively detected buildups of methane gas and low oxygen levels, reduced efforts in some mines to ventilate the mine properly based on the assumption that improvements in detecting the gas lessened the need to remove the gas.

It was much the same story with the introduction of technologies in surface mining and the impacts the new technology would have on the environment. In the West, the land is flat or rolling, the coal bed beneath only 100-300 feet of usually “soft” overburden, making it ideal for the use of large machines to extract large tonnages of coal. As a result of these conditions, western mines have developed ever larger and more efficient machines that have now become gigantic – today, two mines in Wyoming using these machines produce more coal than all the mines—deep and surface—than is produced in all of eastern Kentucky. However, these huge western surface mines which dominate the industry today could not exist without the complex and gigantic machines capable of removing millions of tons of overburden and extracting huge tonnages of coal efficiently as well as the existence of technology to haul such huge tonnages to distract markets efficiently. Such machines simply did not exist until the 1950s and 1960s, when large western surface mines began their inexorable climb to dominate coal production as they do today. As late as 1940, only a small percentage of American coal was surface mined (in all regions of the country), and prior to 1960 the lack of effective large-scale extractive technology was a primary factor in the late growth of the Western surface mining industry.

The reasons holding back eastern surface mining were somewhat different than in the West and did not involve, at least initially, the need for giant draglines which were necessary for large-scale western and mid-western surface coal mining. The main constraint on the rise of surface mining in Appalachia was not the lack of large mining machines but the lack of a transportation infrastructure to haul the coal from the small eastern surface mines, which did not have direct access to the railroad system used by large underground mines.

Until the rise of mountaintop removal in the 1990s, eastern surface mines were relatively small and used a method of extraction mining called contour mining in which the coal operator made a cut into the side of the mountain at the level of the coal seam and then followed the seam along the contour of the mountain for as long as the seam continued, or until the operator reached the end of the coal he owned or controlled. This method of mining required relatively small equipment, such as front end loaders, trucks to haul the coal away, bulldozers to move the overburden, and a drill rig to blast the coal from its bed. All these machines were readily available as they were used in local construction and building activities. However, to haul the coal from the usually remote surface mine site to a tipple or rail loading dock in heavily loaded trucks required both reliable trucks and reasonably good roads with hard surfaces which did not exist in much of Appalachia in the first half of the 20th century.

Though the contour strip mines in Appalachia were small in size, by the 1960s and 1970s there were thousands of them and they mined for many thousands of miles along the steep slopes of countless Appalachian mountains, drastically impacting the land and people of Appalachia. The impacts of the contour mines were severe because the mines were largely located in steep-slope mountainous areas which experienced heavy rainfall. Contour mining caused almost unimaginable damage to Appalachia in the 1960s and 70s and in regions such as northern West Virginia and southeast Ohio, produced chronic acid mine drainage.

How specific pieces of technology and mining techniques affected mine health and safety and the environment is often a complicated and somewhat nuanced question, particularly where health and safety is concerned. How effectively the American political and legal system responded to the external impacts of mining is not a complicated question. American society failed in its attempts to mitigate the impacts of mining, no matter what the impacts were or how severe the impacts might be. With few exceptions, the political and economic power of the coal industry, largely exercised at the state and local level until the 1970s, in combination with the industry-friendly economic and legal philosophies of the time, blocked most meaningful attempts to mitigate the impacts of mining.

The exercise by the industry of its political and economic power to block meaningful reforms included opposition to the most basic safety and health measures—such as rock dusting to suppress potentially explosive coal dust, inspection of mines by mining inspectors, limits on the exposure of miners to coal dust; adequate ventilation standards, compensation for black lung disease, self rescuers for miners; protection against electrocution from non-permissible electrical equipment such as trolley wires, shot firing legislation, and the like.

The coal industry opposed attempts to mitigate the environmental impacts of mining just as vigorously as it did the health and safety impacts of mining. These efforts included opposing the mitigation or prevention of acid mine drainage, the mitigation of subsidence damage from underground mining, requirements to restore mined land to its approximate original contour, federal regulation of the environmental impacts of mining, adequate bonding, limits on the impacts of mountaintop removal, and construction of waste impoundments, to mention a few of the environmental measures industry opposed.

Throughout the history of American mining, with a few notable exceptions, such as Representative Ken Hechler of West Virginia, Ned Breathitt, Governor of Kentucky in the 1960s, and early in his career, Jay Rockefeller, most state and local politicians in central Appalachia were loyal to the short term interests of the industry, as were their federal representatives in Congress, whether the issues related to mine safety or the impacts of mining on the environment.

The power of the coal industry at the state level and the hostile attitude of state and local political figures to the regulation of mining are well captured in the Governor of West Virginia’s response in 1901 to legislation passed by the state legislature, which required regular mine inspections. The Governor vetoed the bill, reasoning that the legislation created “too much risk to our greatest commercial interests…The greatness of West Virginia is founded upon our coal…Can the Legislature of West Virginia afford to do anything that would impede, hamper or hinder the progress of this great industry within the borders of our State?”

In the view of the Governor, apparently not. Coal was king, at least for a time.

Meaningful reform, when it finally occurred at the federal level in the 1970s, was championed primarily by national Democrats from largely non-coal states, such as Morris Udall of Arizona, Patsy Mink of Hawaii, Phil Burton of California and Harrison Williams of New Jersey. This political reality remains true to this day, with major political figures in the coalfields, including Democrats, loudly protesting the so-called “War on Coal” launched by the Obama Administration.

Attempts to control the environmental impacts of mining had a somewhat different dynamic than the attempts to regulate the impacts of mining on the health and safety of miners. Before the 1960s, the environmental impacts of mining drew little public attention, with the exception of acid mine drainage, subsidence and coal waste banks in Pennsylvania. Except in Pennsylvania, there was little public outcry for laws to address the early environmental impacts of mining. The same was not true of mine safety, and, to a lesser extent, miners’ health.

The political forces behind state mine safety legislation differed from the political forces that attempted to address the environmental impacts of mining in that an organized interest group, the miners and their union, pressed state legislators as early as the 1860s for legislation to improve safety in the mines.

In addition to the pressure from the miners and their union, the impetus for mine safety reform was strengthened by the recurring mine disasters. Mine disasters occupy a prominent place in the long history of American mining and in the mind of the public. These spectacular and gruesome events in which, in the early years, a single explosion could cause hundreds of deaths, gained the public’s attention and created public support for the improvement of mining conditions, a necessary predicate for controversial legislative action. Beginning with the Avondale mine disaster in Pennsylvania in 1869, calls for mine safety reform came after almost all major disasters, and most legislation at the state level, and all legislation at the federal level, occurred after, and was driven by, the occurrence of a major disaster.

The 1969 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act (following the Farmington, WV disaster in November, 1968) and the 1977 Amendments to that Act (following the Scotia, KY mine disaster in March, 1976) were enacted after the state legislatures had failed for over a century to effectively mitigate the health and safety impacts of mining and after the federal government had acted only in very limited ways.

The failure of government at both the state or federal level to regulate effectively the impacts of mining meant that it was not the law but the unstable economics of the coal industry and the ever present efforts to boost productivity, lower costs and increase competitiveness that would determine where coal was mined, how much coal was mined, the conditions under which miners would extract the coal, and the impacts on third parties and miners that would result from the mining process.

The coal industry used its political power and whatever other means it could to block the passage of meaningful laws to mitigate the impacts of mining, and when a law finally passed, they made equally vigorous efforts to block implementation of the law. The political power of the coal industry was vast, as captured in the apt title of a book by the Appalachian writer, Harry Caudill – Theirs Be The Power. Their great political power was not based on large political contributions the industry made to favored state legislators or governors, although that certainly occurred, or because of the corruption of the political process, although that was often true as well. The political power exercised by the coal industry for most of American history had far deeper roots, a power based on coal’s role as the major, and in some instances, the sole industry in an area, particularly in central Appalachia, and the industry’s resulting control of local, usually county based, political machines.

Thus, even when a worthwhile requirement was passed into law over the opposition of the industry, the law went largely or, in many cases, completely unenforced. For example, some early 19th century state legislation on mine safety contained worthwhile provisions requiring permissible explosives, adequate ventilation, and adequate rock dusting. However, even when legislative requirements such as these were passed, the laws were not enforced effectively, if at all, and the conditions in the mines remained largely as they were before the legislation was enacted.

Some state mine safety laws which were passed as early as the late 19th century would, if enforced, have lessened the damaging impacts of mining dramatically. These laws were not radical pieces of legislation.

A few examples-

Rock dusting of coal mines in order to suppress coal dust to prevent coal dust explosions was required by a number of states as early as the last quarter of the 19th century. However, as with other mine safety provisions, the rock dusting laws were rarely enforced.

Rock dusting cost somewhere around a penny per ton of coal during this time, so it is hard to argue that compliance would have damaged the economics of the coal industry or forced coal companies out of business. Nor is rock dusting a mine a complex endeavor difficult to accomplish. Nor does rock dusting interfere or slow the extraction process. And, finally, it is not difficult for an inspector to determine if rock dusting has been done adequately. In short, there was no serious reason not to rock dust adequately, except for its meager cost. Yet thousands of miners died violently in coal dust explosions due to the failure of coal operators to perform the simple task of rock dusting. Many thousands of miners who died in coal dust explosions could have been saved by adequate rock dusting, and effective enforcement of laws existing at the time would have accomplished this.

The requirement to ventilate the mines adequately provides a second example of a health and safety requirement that was passed but then ignored and largely unenforced. Ventilation of a mine is central to both the safety and health of a miner. Ventilation provides necessary oxygen to the miner and removes toxic and explosive gas from the mine atmosphere, the cause of countless explosions and deaths in U.S. mines. It is difficult to argue that a mine should be allowed to operate without adequate ventilation whatever the historical period.

As one mining historian noted:

No mining can occur without ventilation…[I]t is the most important single phase of mining, one on which everything else depends. A good ventilation system, therefore, must be correctly designed, properly conducted as the workings advance, and continually there to make sure it is functioning correctly.”

Given its central importance to the health and safety of mines and the well-being of the miners, it is not surprising that the early state mining laws focused on requiring adequate ventilation of the mines. For example, over vigorous industry opposition, Pennsylvania passed mine safety laws in the last part of the 19th century requiring specific amounts of fresh air to be supplied to the miners with the amount of air calculated on the number of persons employed in the mine (150 cubic feet of air per minute per person). Ohio had a similar requirement.

Despite passage of these clear and unambiguous ventilation requirements and the importance of adequate ventilation to both the safety and health of the miners, the industry largely ignored the ventilation-related requirements in the laws. As Andrew Roy, a leading mining historian of the era noted with regard to the Ohio law- “Not a single operator in the State paid the least attention to the requirements of the law. It acted like a train of cars on a dead level without any propelling force.”

Roy continued:

All mining authorities are agreed that one hundred cubic feet per minute per miner employed is necessary to be circulated through the workings of the most harmless of mines to render them fit for the abode of miners, and in mines which make fire-damp double or quadruple this quantity may be required, according to the amount of inflammable air which the mines may generate. I will venture the statement that there are not a dozen mines in the state in which a hundred feet of air per minute per person employed is provided, and that in the great majority of the mines the arrangements for carrying forward the air to the working faces are so defective that more than half the current never reaches the miners.

As to the costs associated with adequately ventilating a mine in the early 20th century, Roy estimated the cost to be between 4 and 6 cents per ton.

A third example can be found in the industry’s strenuous objections to mine inspections, which are necessary to determine whether a mine was in compliance with the safety laws of the state. The coal industry in states where mine safety legislation was passed in the last quarter of the 19th century consistently opposed inspection of their mines to determine if they were in fact complying with the safety requirements that had been passed by the legislature, such as ventilation and rock dusting.

In Ohio and Pennsylvania, which along with Illinois were the states in the late 19th century leading the way on mine safety, the establishment of state (or county) inspections was vigorously opposed by the industry. When, after years of struggle, minimum inspection requirements were finally established, the industry then disputed who could be an inspector and how many inspections should be conducted. When inspections finally occurred, some inspectors, friendly to the industry, bowed to industry pressure and did not take action to enforce violations of the laws. In other situations, those inspectors who resisted industry pressure had little practical authority and were too few in number to act effectively.

To get an idea of how poor enforcement of the mine safety laws was, consider that until 1904 in West Virginia there had not been a single prosecution of a mine safety violation in the entire state, a period during which thousands of miners died.

When prosecutions did start in West Virginia, the prosecutions that were brought were not against the coal companies but against the individual miner. In 1910 in West Virginia, for example, there were 163 prosecutions of which 159, or all but four, were against the miners and not the company.

The pattern of weak laws and almost non-existent enforcement that characterized state mine safety regulation was repeated in later years when the states began to address the impacts of mining on the environment. With a few minor exceptions, as strip mining accounted for only a small percentage of U.S. coal production by 1940, state legislatures did not address the environmental impacts of mining until the 1950s and 1960s when strip mining increased dramatically.

The statutes that the states passed were very weak, and in some cases failed even to require the coal operator to identify where the mine was located (Kentucky). To state the obvious, it is difficult to inspect a mine and enforce the law if you do not know where it is.

But as with mine safety, there were at least a few requirements in some states which, if enforced would have lessened the impacts of strip mining on the environment. For example, in Kentucky when the abuses of strip mining were the greatest (along with Virginia), state law set limits to the size of the cut that could be made into the side of the mountain, thus in theory limiting the amount of waste, rock or spoil that would be produced by the mine and thus how much of the waste would find its way onto the slope of the mountain, i.e. spoil on the downslope, the greatest single impact of contour strip mining.

The Kentucky provision was largely ignored by coal operators and went unenforced by the state. As a result, the thousands of miles of highwalls and landslides grew ever greater. Similarly, Kentucky state law required that a mine site be reclaimed within a year of mining. This requirement was also systematically ignored as evidenced by the hundreds of miles of totally unreclaimed highwalls which were created in Eastern Kentucky during the period.

Not only were the state statutes weak and unenforced, in case after case when affected citizens or miners turned to the courts to gain relief from the ravages of mining under the common law, the courts consistently ruled against them. State courts repeatedly held that the overall interests of society in coal production overrode any harm to the environment or to the miner that resulted from the mining activity. In the courts’ view, it was the role of the miner and the environment to bear the impacts of mining without significant recourse for injury, environmental harm, or even death, all for the greater good of an industry that courts saw as central to the economic development of the nation.

Prior to the rise of coal mining and other major industrial activities, American common law was largely one of strict liability, a doctrine under which a land owner was held responsible for any damage caused by activity on his land to land and water resources owned by others. Industry, and particularly the coal industry, thought the doctrine too restrictive and urged the courts to shift from a regime of strict liability to one of negligence in determining liability for the external consequences of economic activity. Under the negligence doctrine, a beneficial activity, particularly an industrial activity such as mining, could not be held liable for damages caused to others, no matter how severe, unless the industrial activity was carried out negligently, as judged by the standards of the time. Thus, if mining was done in accordance with the standards of the time, the coal operator could not be held liable for damage or be enjoined to cease the injurious activity. Thus it was that the coal industry was allowed to escape liability for the massive and lasting impacts it would cause to the land and water of the coalfields in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For example, in the case of acid mine drainage the courts, in adopting the negligence doctrine in the late 19th century allowed coal operators to cause severe and lasting environmental damage to water resources through the discharge of acid mine water into streams and rivers. In the landmark Sanderson case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered this result necessary in order for the coal industry to develop and prosper.

Other courts, particularly in Kentucky, interpreted mineral deeds (called broad form deeds) to allow coal operators to do whatever they felt necessary to extract coal without regard to the damage that would be caused to land owned by others, even though the surface owner (the Appalachian citizen) objected adamantly when the mining destroyed his land and his home.

Different common law doctrines were used in the health and safety area to shift the costs and risks of mining from the company onto others, but the same end was achieved. State courts aggressively applied the common law doctrines of free labor, freedom of contract, assumption of risk, contributory negligence and the fellow servant doctrine to ensure that the coal operator (or other industrial corporation) would bear little or no responsibility for the health and safety conditions in the mines (or workplace), and that the risks of the mining activity would lie with the miner, often referred to, rather cynically, as the “careless” miner. Predictably, the President of the UMWA bitterly characterized these anti-worker doctrines as “decayed relics of the so-called wisdom of the law.”

The adoption of these common law doctrines and the failure to enforce the weak state statutes on health and safety and later the environmental statutes ensured that there would be few constraints on operators from mining coal as they saw fit and that they would face little, if any, liability from their actions. And once mining operators were freed from any meaningful legal restraints on how they mined and from any legal responsibility for the harm they caused, coal operators, often under intense economic pressure, mined largely as they saw fit, keeping costs as low as possible in a highly competitive, cut-throat and unstable industry. In doing so, the coal industry caused massive, widespread and lasting harm across generations.

It was only well into the second half of the 20th century, first in mine health and safety in 1969, and then in the environment in 1977, that federal legislation began to play a significant role in regulating mining and its consequences.

In 1969, as we will see, Congress passed comprehensive legislation in mine safety and health, only to be met with strenuous industry opposition to its implementation, an opposition which continues today, over 45 years later. Similarly, in the late 1970s, due to a variety of political factors, primarily Democratic control of Congress and, in 1976, the election of a Democratic President, following two vetoes by Republican presidents, the coal industry could no longer block strong federal legislative action on the environment. But having lost the fight to block the legislation, once the legislation was passed, many operators simply refused to comply with the new law. Others fought the law and its implementation for decades in the executive branch agencies and in the courts, a fight which continues today in much the same manner as has occurred with the mine safety laws.

All in all, the story of coal in America is one filled with much human suffering and lasting environmental harm, particularly in Appalachia. It is a history replete with poverty, discrimination and deprivation, with lives harshly lived. It is equally a story of an inefficient and unstable industry which exerted great political power to largely have its way.

But the story of coal is also a story of resilience and courage on the part of the miners and the citizens of the coalfields who were willing to fight enormous economic and political power with little in the way of resources or political experience. It is true that, at best, the people and the miners of the coalfields and their supporters achieved only partial success in combating the impacts of mining that shaped and claimed their lives in the hundreds of thousands. However, history should not forget their suffering, their sacrifice, and their century-long fight against the adverse impacts of mining.

This is their story.