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Coal Business at the Crossroads


For this edition of Coal Age, we have assembled an intriguing collection of articles that will hopefully help you operate more safely and efficiently. As we do every month, we try to offer something for everyone by covering three different aspects of the coal business: surface mining, underground mining and coal preparation, along with some other subjects.

Two articles this month focus on improving efficiency with maintenance and operators with surface mining equipment (see Dragline Maintenance, p. 34 and Operating Ideas, p. 62). Plant managers should find the article on automated control rooms informative. Similarly, for the underground professionals, we report on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s new training tools for mine rescue teams (see Mine Rescue, p. 58).

For the history buffs, we take a look back 25 years ago at the fire that destroyed the shovel at the Captain mine in Illinois. Coincidentally, that was the year (1991) that I started my career with Coal Age and Engineering & Mining Journal (E&MJ). Off the beaten path, we now have a group that believes they have found a solution for the pollution problems encountered in the agriculture business by using coal as an ingredient for fertilizer, rather than potash. This could open up a new market for coal, and the developers believe it could help save the coal business.

Speaking of saving it, the coal business today finds itself at a perilous point. In the U.S. Coal Report (see p. 24), we detail the carnage that has taken place in the last five years. It’s certainly one of the more depressing articles that I have written. While some might debate the merits of flogging a dead horse, for better or worse, we need to document the facts, such as an expected 36% drop in production and a 23% drop in employment. What is clear is that there is still quite a bit of excess capacity in the market, and there is a lot hinging on the presidential election this fall. The American coal miner needs an economic rally to grow power generation.

From a half-full glass perspective, the noise surrounding the bankruptcies in the coal business is beginning to settle. Two major coal producers have announced reorganization plans that will let them emerge from bankruptcy and get on with their business. Mining is a long-term commitment, and it’s difficult to focus on medium- and long-term plans when the company doesn’t know if it will survive the next quarter. Hopefully, now more of the industry will be able to make decisions with confidence. Enjoy this edition of Coal Age.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief

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