Late 20th Century Coal Mining

Teaching Unit Elements

Coal production and consumption in the United States dipped slightly after World War II, as the fuel source lost market share to inexpensive oil increasingly used for transportation, industry, and heating. Starting in the early 1960s, however, coal producers found a new purpose – meeting the rapidly growing demand for electricity from coal-fired electric generating plants. By 1980, eighty-one percent of the nation’s coal consumption went to electric power; by 2000, that share increased further to ninety-one percent.

In order to meet this growing demand and to cut production costs, coal operators embraced new technologies that allowed them to improve productivity by shifting from underground to surface mining. Enormous mechanized draglines, power shovels, and loading equipment allowed fewer workers to mine more coal per day than previously possible. The new production methods eliminated many of the occupational dangers of underground mining, but gave rise to novel forms of environmental degradation. Surface mining also slashed the employment of coal miners, increasing the precariousness of mining communities and weakening the bargaining power of the mine workers’ union.

This teaching unit examines the changing geography of the US coal economy after 1960, reveals what day-to-day life was like in the Appalachian coalfields, and highlights the politics of mitigating the industry’s environmental and health effects.


The overview for this teaching unit is presently in development. Select primary source items are available in the teaching unit.

 

The U.S. coal economy underwent significant changes during the late twentieth century in terms of where and how coal was produced. Overall production increased after 1960 in eastern coal mines, with another jump occurring in western mines after 1970. Mining techniques also shifted from underground to surface mining. Despite rising levels of production into the early years of the twenty-first century, popular discourse surrounding coal is often centered on a story of decline brought about by environmental regulations.

Congress considered these two pieces of evidence as part of its deliberations on the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. The Act, which the House passed with near unanimous support, offered miners novel protections against workplace hazards and a host of federal benefits for victims of black lung.

What do the two perspectives advanced in these documents tell us about the nature of black lung disease and attempts by industry and the federal government to manage its effects?

Between 1972 and 1974, an Environmental Protection Agency photography initiative called Documerica sought to capture areas of contemporary environmental concern. The photographs in this slideshow were taken primarily in the Appalachian regions of Ohio and West Virginia. They portray the landscapes altered by new surface mining techniques.

What do these images reveal about the environmental degradation associated with the shift to surface mining?

Between 1972 and 1974, an Environmental Protection Agency photography initiative called Documerica sought to capture areas of environmental concern in the 1970s. The photographs in this slideshow were taken primarily in the Appalachian regions of Virginia, Ohio, and West Virginia, but also feature surface mining sites in Montana.

What do these images tell us about the changing scope of surface mining tools in the late twentieth century?

Between 1972 and 1974, an Environmental Protection Agency photography initiative called Documerica sought to capture areas of environmental concern in the 1970s. The photographs in this slideshow were taken primarily in the Appalachian regions of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act dictated that federal lands, managed by the Department of the Interior, should serve the “national interest.” The Act was one of the key regulatory tools the department employed in its push to lease western coal to private companies from the early 1980s onward.

How might competing definitions of the “national interest” shape federal energy policy?

Mountain Life & Work, a magazine published monthly by the Council of the Southern Mountains, tells the stories of workers living in the coal mining communities of the Appalachian South.

What does this November 1983 article reveal about the environmental and human costs of coal mining and other extractive industries?

The Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, a non-profit organization that provides legal services to residents of coal mining communities, summarized two years of its activities in this report, published in 1990 and mailed to prospective donors. Read the document’s introductory note and the case summaries under the “Black Lung” heading and consider the following questions:

What do the Fund’s black lung cases tell us about the costs of working in the coal industry?

This EPA document, likely published in 2001 or 2002, captures the problem of what to do with the mine lands that had been abandoned during the latter half of the twentieth century. The paper reflects concerns voiced by mining critics as strip mining proliferated, including the ecological, health, social, and economic threats posed by these “unreclaimed” or un-restored mined lands.  Read the document’s introduction and at least one of its subsections, and consider the following questions:

What does this document reveal about coal companies’ adherence to federal reclamation policies during the last three decades of the twentieth century?

How well do you think that the document’s suggestions, including creating “active recreation” sites on abandoned mine lands, address the ecological costs of surface mining?

How might an emphasis on creating recreational sites on abandoned mine lands appeal to mining companies seeking to dispose of the lands, and to their political supporters?

Davis, Donald Edward. Where There Are Mountains : An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
 
Eller, Ronald. Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945. University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
 
Montrie, Chad. To Save the Land and People : A History of Opposition to Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
 
Muncy, Robyn. Relentless Reformer : Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015.
 
Turner, James Morton. The Republican Reversal : Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018.
 
Wilkerson, Jessica. To Live Here, You Have to Fight : How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019.
Molly Harris is a PhD student at Yale University.