Artifacts from 100 years of mining spot the landscape at the Blaschak Coal Corp. strip mine in Hazle Township; evidence of a long history continued with the company's renewed excavation of a coal seam just north of Hazleton.
The sheer rock faces of the 300-foot pit are pockmarked with notches that once supported the timbered ceilings of underground shafts and man-sized tunnels traversed by miners scouting new coal veins. An intact timber support beam sits in a pile of recently excavated coal and smaller scraps and shards dot the pit's gravel floor.
Almost of all of this has been uncovered within the last two years by Blaschak, the newest company to dig at a long-mined seam of anthracite. Some 50 years after most of Northeastern Pennsylvania's anthracite coal industry went bust, interest in the resource has returned in a big way.
Greg Driscoll, CEO of Blaschak Coal, said corporations have invested about $250 million in anthracite mining since 2009, more than had been invested in the previous 35 years. That sum includes the roughly $10 million Blaschak has spent on its Lattimer surface mine off Route 309.
Anthracite is a little different, Driscoll said, explaining how niche uses drive demand for the resource even as U.S. power generators move away from burning coal. With a higher carbon content than any form of fuel, anthracite is used by steel producers and sugar refineries to control the temperatures of their kilns, and the lion's share of the coal Blaschak produces is sold to those industries, Driscoll said.
The company also sells about a third of its coal to heating coal distributors, Driscoll said. Anthracite is also used extensively in drinking water filtration systems and in creating specialty filters for environmental cleanup and industrial use.
Anthracite demand is up globally, fueled by steel production and power generation in countries like China and India.
One of the things this industry is doing is working to reclaim its place in feeding that demand, Driscoll said.
The renewed investment in anthracite is being driven by large corporations with deep pockets, Driscoll said. He attributed the decline of Northeast Pennsylvania's coal industry in the 1950s and 60s to the dominance of the industry by moms and pops that lacked the capital to invest in new equipment and keep pace with new methods of mining.
Blaschak's acquisition of the Lattimer Mine was enabled by an injection of capital from Milestone Partners, an investment company that acquired Blaschak in 2009. It began mining the 350-acre site in 2010 following the 2007 bankruptcy of Mammoth Anthracite, a smaller, Hazleton-based coal company that previously operated the mine. Driscoll said close to 90 percent of the surface excavation at the property has been done by Blaschak.
The company also operates mines near Centralia in Columbia County and north of Mahanoy City in Schuylkill County.
The reason for the company's interest in the site lies in the Mammoth Vein, one of the largest and longest-mined anthracite seams in the United States, which underlies the property. Though the area has been mined since the nineteenth century, Blaschak believes it still contains about 2 million tons of coal.
We estimate it to be between 30 and 40 percent of the original coal is still in place, Driscoll said.
The company has pulled more than 300,000 tons of unseparated run-of-the-mine coal from the mine so far this year and expects to produce 400,000 tons by the end of the year. About 60 people work at the mine.
By way of comparison, a household using coal as its central heating source will burn between 6 and 10 tons of coal per year, Driscoll said, and industrial customers like steel mills consume up to 100,000 tons per year.
The coal is separated from adjacent rock and sorted into five sizes by an on-site breaker and sold at the mine.
Some of the waste rock separated from the coal is sold by a stone quarrying company, Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc., operating on the same property. Blaschak subleases the mining rights to the property from Hawbaker, which leases the land from property owner Pasco Schiavo, a Hazleton attorney. Blaschak has leased the property for 20 years.
The mining project will have the long-term impact of reclaiming existing mine land and reducing its impact on ground and surface water through acid mine drainage, Driscoll said.
The mine operates under a re-mining and reclamation permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which requires Blaschak to backfill and restore the site to its approximate condition before mining when its excavation is complete and to bond the work to insure the reclamation is completed.
Reclaiming mine land would cost the state about $30,000 per acre, according to the company.
Headquarters: Mahanoy City, Carbon County
Facilities: 3 mines, 2 processing facilities
Products: Anthracite coal used for heating, filtration and industrial applications
In Luzerne County: Lattimer Basin mine will produce 400,000 tons of coal this year and employs about 60 workers