November 13, 2006
6:00 - 7:30 pm
State Technical Community College
10915 Hardin Valley Road, Knoxville
Lamar Alexander Building
An Overview of the History, Regulation, and Geology of the Tennessee Coalfields
U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Surface Mining
Coal has a long history in Tennessee which dates back to the mid-1800s. Early coal mining owes much of its development to the introduction of the coke-fired blast furnace, which replaced charcoal in the smelting process. Later, coal development was used for operation of steam boilers and electrical power generation. Coal production reached its peak in 1972, when approximately 11.2 million tons were mined. However, coal production in Tennessee has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years, averaging between 2 and 5 million tons per year. Although there are many mining methods, coal extraction in Tennessee is restricted primarily to underground drift mines (openings located along the actual coal outcrop); contour mines; area/cross-ridge mines; and auger/highwall mines.
Historically, most coal was extracted through underground mining methods until the 1960s and 1970s, when surface mining techniques began to surpass production from underground mining. With this came the environmental, safety, and property damage issues associated with large scale land-use alterations. Tennessee began the regulation of surface mining in 1968 with the Tennessee Strip Mine Law of 1967, which was later amended by the Tennessee Mineral Surface Mining Law of 1972. In August 1977, Congress past a sweeping national standard for surface coal mine regulation, entitled the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (Public Law 95-87). One of the primary purposes of this legislation was to establish a nationwide program to protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations.
The Tennessee coalfield is comprised of Early to Middle Pennsylvanian-aged strata that have a cumulative thickness of over 4,000 feet and which contain more than 40 named coal seams. The lower strata are dominated by massive sandstones and conglomerates separated by relatively thinner shale units. These sandstones control the topography for the majority of the Cumberland Plateau portion of the coalfield and comprise 16 of the 21 coalfield counties. The younger geologic strata are dominated by thick shale sequences with discontinuous and relatively thin sandstones which are restricted to the Cumberland Mountain sections of Scott, Campbell, Morgan, Anderson, and Claiborne counties. Minimal marine influence is evident in the Pennsylvanian-age rocks of Tennessee, although small zones and limestone beds containing marine fossils have been identified. Major structural features have been used to correlate and divide the Tennessee coalfield into five geographic regions.
What is the outlook for Tennessee coal? Despite the increased coal prices of 2004-2005, there has not been any significant change in coal production or permitting activity in Tennessee for the last five years. The average number of new permits issued in Tennessee averages between three and five per year. Tennessee Valley Authority officials predict that a renewed interest in Tennessee coal will occur once the scrubbers have been installed at coal-fired plants under their management. However, the Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration predicts that there will be only a 3 percent increase in demand for Appalachian coal by the year 2012.
Page updated May 26, 2018