The most important resource in a mining operation is the people. As explained in the previous pages, whether a company surface or underground mines a given coal reserve is not a simple choice, in many cases a reserve can either be surface mined or underground mined but not both. Further, as shown by the 2010 Accident Rate comparison table, that can be viewed in more detail by clicking on the image at the top of this page, the surface mining accident rate is, at least, over two times less than that of underground mining. Safety is the primary goal in the coal mining industry and is taken into account when the type of mining is assessed and decided upon.
It has been written that more miners would be employed if we stopped surface mining and switched to underground mining. It’s true that surface mining is more productive than deep mining. Using Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) data for the first three months of 2009, West Virginia surface miners produced 3.99 tons per employee-hour compared to 2.94 tons per employee-hour for West Virginia deep miners (page 16 of U.S. Department of Labory, MSHA, Program Evaluation and Information Resources , Information Technology Center, Mine Injury and Worktime, Quarterly, January-March, 2009 Report). Simply stated, 120 surface miners could mine 1 million tons per year while 163 deep miners would be required to produce the same output (1,000,000 tons / tons per employee hour / 2080 hours per employee per year).
Let’s imagine that a 10 million ton block of coal could actually be mined using either deep or surface mining methods. Surface mining would recover about 80% of the reserve, so 120 miners could work for eight years (960 employee-years) to produce eight million tons. Deep mining would recover about 50% of the reserve due to the requirement to leave pillars and barriers in place, so 163 miners would be employed for five years (815 employee-years) to recover five million tons. (See Glossary at page 69 of this DOE document for the definition of Recovery Factor.) Three million fewer tons would be mined and the equivalent of 145 jobs for one year would not be created. In addition, the overlying seams too thin, too close together or too near the top of the mountain to deep mine would be recovered by surface mining, so the actual tonnage and longevity of the surface mine would be greater. The argument that deep mining creates more jobs simply breaks down when one considers all of the factors involved.
It’s also often quoted that surface-mined coal from Central Appalachia makes up only a small percentage of the nation’s total coal production so we should just eliminate this form of mining. However, in 2008 Central Appalachian surface mining produced almost 131 million tons, or 11% of the 1.17 billion tons of U.S. coal production, not an insignificant amount. (See Table 3 at the MSHA website) That’s why we surface mine – it’s not easy, it’s not cheap, and it’s not quick. But it’s the method that works to produce over 40% of Central Appalachia’s coal output.