Coal Country Field Trip!

Pioneer Coal Mine Tunnel, Ashland, PA

Who thought there’d be field trips in PhD school? Not me! And there aren’t! I actually tagged along with my advisor and his undergrad class to visit this coal mine in Pennsylvania. It was quite a treat. Figure out what you’re going to do for your dissertation and try not to worry about getting buried 300 feet under a mountain!

This coal mine actually only operates as a tourism and educational facility right now. It was pretty cool. The guide was a former miner, and he was very informative. He helped the kids with their questions (they had some they were required to ask), and he answered mine about what happens to the tailings (mining waste).

The answer? Nothing! That’s right, it is just dumped out and left so rainwater can wash through it and leach chemicals into the groundwater system. yummy! He said that historically no one was concerned with the waste materials, and as a result they were just dumped outside and out of the way, so that more of the economically viable coal could be collected. Why don’t they do anything today? I never got a clear answer to that…

A vein of Coal...can't really see it in this picture

They name all the veins and one was called 'Skidmore'!

A picture of the mining process

Mining is pretty dangerous work. These veins of coal run up through the mountain at a steady slant because of the strike (angle) of the mountain. what happens is they first blast out a portion of the vein directly above themselves, then they need to insert a platform for standing. They have skinny little ladders that lead up the mountain, and they climb them to get to the new area for blasting. Every time material is blasted it falls down creating a new space for them to stand in to blast more coal and move on up the through the ground. Sounds confusing, but hopefully it makes sense when looking at the picture also.

This is what a mined vein looks like...just a skinny gap in the rocks. This is looking up at about a 45 degree angle.

Back then they used real horsepower...or donkey power!

The donkeys actually lived underground. They liked the cooler temperatures (it’s about a steady 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year round in the mine), and eventually became so accustomed to the darkness that they would go blind.

A load of coal...Merry Christmas!

This shot is of barely visible (because my camera isn't so great) windmills installed on top of old tailings (the grayish blush ground you see between the bushes) piles. Pollution meets green energy!

Here the ground I’m standing on is actually on fire…beneath the surface. Someone lit a garbage fire 10-20 years ago, and it caught a vein of coal on fire. Now the fire rages underground and there’s no way to stop it. When there’s a lot of moisture out (rain, snow, fog) you can see steam rising from the ground.

Acid mine drainage!!

This is what happens to the water because of the tailings! I was really excited to see this because I’ve read about it for years and never actually saw any caused by a mine. They had some in Saratoga Springs, but although it’s the same idea (acidified water leads to oxidation and precipitation). Anyway, the water becomes very acidic and most of the organisms in and around it die. In PA there is a lot of limestone though, and that can neutralize the acidity of the acid mine drainage process.


2 responses to “Coal Country Field Trip!

  1. My favorite part is the pretend donkey

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