The whisper of a dragonfly's wings

By Rachel Gross & Trish O'Kane.


In 1900, the average American woke to the first and most important chore—tending to a coal fire. After washing off hands stained by coal dust and shaking black powder out of her clothes, this worker stepped onto a city street often dim with a coal smog haze. She walked past buildings turning black and deteriorating because of coal. She breathed in the acrid, bitter taste of the fuel that was turning this former colony into an empire. Over 100 years later, that American's tiny coal fire, along with millions of others, have become 10 story-tall, 3,000 degree fireballs that we never see, hidden inside power plants. Half of the electricity in the U.S. now comes from coal burned behind those sealed walls. How did coal disappear from our direct view?

Table of Contents

  1. What is coal?
    1. Types/Rank
  2. Where is it?
  3. History: How have our uses and understandings of it changed over time?
  4. How is it used, today?
  5. How is it produced, distributed, and consumed?
  6. Who regulates it?
  7. Who benefits, who suffers?
    1. Water
    2. Mountains
    3. Air
  8. Why do we argue about it?
  9. How do we recognize it in the landscape?
  10. To Learn More
  11. Works Consulted
  12. Glossary
  13. References

What is Coal?

Before dinosaurs thundered across the earth's surface, before birds flew in the skies, before flowers, before fruits, before snakes, even, there was coal.

Some 300 million years ago, at the time of supercontinent Pangaea, our planet was covered in forests of giant ferns and trees. Wisconsin was somewhere near the Equator and the continents were just one great green clump. Horsetails 30 feet tall swayed alongside towering 100-foot trees called Lycopsids. Dragonflies with a 2.5 foot wingspan buzzed slowly around the giant trees, too big to fly fast.1 On the ground below, millipedes the size of small ponies crept around.

The lycopsid trees had spore-bearing cones a foot long and grass-like narrow leaves three feet long. More bark than wood, lycopsid trunks were six feet thick-- one foot of that was bark. This bark would become much of the coal mined in the eastern United States and Western Europe.2

The largest intact fossil forest ever found lies approximately 225 miles from Madison, just south of Danville, Illinois. Miners working for the Black Beauty Coal Company discovered it when they looked up at the ceiling of an underground mine shaft. A 307 million-year-old fossil tropical forest from the Carboniferous period, the first coal age, hovered over them. Scientists believe that a cataclysmic earthquake hit this area and an ancient ocean flooded the forest, killing it quickly, which explains why it is so well-preserved.3

Coal deposits from some of the planet's other forests formed more slowly. As the trees died, they piled up and began to decay. Supercontinent Pangaea slowly disintegrated. Shorelines shifted, swamps and inland seas drowned some of the forests, and the vegetation accumulated in layers sandwiched with sand and mud. Gradually, it turned to peat and finally hardened into the rock we call coal.

Coal is a tumultuous young earth's autobiography written on these layers. It is the whisper of a gigantic dragonfly's wings. It is the stored energy of a sunny day, 300 million years ago. Coal is compressed history.

Types / Rank

Coal is different from other rocks because it is combustible. It burns because it is a mixture of plants and minerals. The plant parts—wood, spores, and resins-are what fuel the fire. The type of coal depends on the types and ratio of fossilized plants and minerals that make up the deposit. The non-combustible part—the mineral component—contains quartz, carbonate, iron, clay (usually the largest component), and a long list of other trace elements, some of which can cause serious environmental problems (see "Who benefits, who suffers" below).

Coal is ranked for commercial use based on the percentage of carbon it contains. Generally, higher-ranking coals contain more heat-producing energy, according to the Department of Energy. Graphite is a rock that consists of mostly carbon, and peat or turf contains only small amounts of carbon. Coal falls in between. There are four basic ranks of coal based on increasing carbon and energy content: lignite, subbituminous, bituminous, and anthracite.

Lignite, or "brown" coal is the lowest ranking because of a high moisture content and a low percentage of carbon. It is crumbly and tends to be the youngest coal. Lignite is mined at 19 sites in the U.S. and contributes about 7% of U.S. coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Subbituminous coal contains 35-35% carbon and accounts for approximately 46% of U.S. coal production; it comes mainly from Wyoming.

Bituminous coal is the most abundant type and contributes about half of U.S. production. Its carbon content ranges between 45-85% and it is very old--between 100 to 300 million years old.

Finally, the top of the line is anthracite or "black" coal, with the highest percentage of carbon, over 90 percent.4 This is the coal we have been using up first on the planet because of its higher heat energy. It is also the least abundant coal source, just 0.5% of the coal mined in the U.S, all of it in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Where is it?


Figure 1: The United States has different ranks of coal in different regions. There is more bituminous coal in the east, while the western United States has more sub-bituminous coal.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (1997) U.S. Coal Reserves Retrieved from on April 6, 2010.

How have people's uses and understanding of it changed over time?

The practice of using coal as an energy source has been around since ancient times. Romans in the fourth and fifth centuries left traces of burned coal at various sites in what is now Britain. By the middle ages, the coal trade and the accompanying smoke provoked complaints among the English royalty, merchants, and landowners involved.

By 1500, deforestation made a fuel shortage in London seem inevitable, but the spread of the chimney from upper class homes to common homes meant that coal could be used in open hearth fireplaces when wood ran short. Complaints about air quality only increased, though, since chimneys sent the smoke up and out into the air outside. Chimneys brought coal into the home, but the Industrial Revolution changed the scale of coal use even more dramatically. Coal went from being used only as a domestic product, to being utilized in iron works and industrial factories.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen's steam engine started pumping water from a coal mine in England, which eased pressure on miners and allowed them to dig even deeper. A fuel-hungry engine like Newcomen's could easily be fed at the mouth of a coal mine since the coal was plentiful there. James Watt's improvements on the engine in 1776 moved the steam engine beyond the coal mines to be used for other purposes.

In 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened and started moving coal around the country at the thrilling speed of 35mph. Coal was used in industry, to power factories and for smelting iron, but it was also present in urban residents' everyday lives. People wanted open fires in their fire places, and burned cheap coal when there was no wood. This led to the black and yellow fogs that choked cities for days, killing thousands. Even when people started using stoves for cooking and heating rather than open fires, coal did not disappear from the home. Since many stoves were coal-burning, house dwellers, especially women, had direct contact with coal as they cooked and cleaned. Coal was a part of everyday life even if people did not have coal-burning stoves; even wood-burning stoves were made with a coal product—iron. (See coke in the glossary.)

One of the most important shifts in the history of coal arose from two inventions that eventually took coal out of direct sight in the home. Thomas Edison's dynamo, the first coal-fired electric plant, began producing electricity in 1882. J.P. Morgan, an investor in Edison's dynamo, had a vision about how electricity should be distributed. Morgan wanted to sell the generators of electricity—the machines—rather than the electricity itself. But Morgan's vision of having the generators close to the consumers, generating electricity house by house, did not prevail—the dynamo that Edison invented was far too noisy to be suitable in a home.

Instead, it was Samuel Insull's system of a large power plant that supplied cheap electricity to a large number of people, that changed people's relationship with coal. Insull reasoned that because power plants were so big and expensive to build, the plants should be a state-run monopoly. Low prices brought in more and more consumers as electricity became a necessary part of daily life. With Insull's power plant system, coal slowly disappeared from view. Instead of being burned at home on the stove, coal was burned in power plants and brought into the home as electricity. As a part of the Progressive Era obsession with health, power companies hailed electricity as a clean, healthy replacement for sooty coal stoves, never clearly stating that the large power plants providing electricity still burned coal, albeit in a different place, and on a much larger scale.

Coal consumption may have disappeared from view, but it did not slow down. By 1900, coal was the dominant energy source of the United States. During World War II, it provided half of US energy. After the war, coal was in decline as natural gas was used to heat homes.

How it is used today?

Ninety percent of coal in the US is burned for electricity. After coal is mined in the U.S. or imported from abroad, it is brought to a power plant, ground to a powder, then burned at very high heat in a boiler. Burning coal is what produces sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. The water in pipes around the boiler room vaporize into steam because of the high heat. These pipes lead the steam to a turbine which then rotates and creates an electric current inside an attached generator. Transmission lines carry the electric current out of the power plant. Meanwhile the steam is cooled in cooling towers so it can be reintegrated back into the energy-making process.

The other 10% of coal mined in the US is used in industry and for coke. Coke, the pure carbon product you get from baking coal, is used to make iron by smelting iron ore. When iron is refined, it becomes steel, so coal is an integral part of the iron and steel-making processes. Coal is used in a variety of production processes--to mill paper, manufacture cement, and produce chemicals. Do you play tennis, ride a bike or paint your nails? If the answer is yes, you are a coal consumer.

coal 2

Figure 2: The water in pipes around the boiler room vaporizes into steam because of the high heat created by fuel and air. These pipes lead the steam to a turbine which then rotates and creates an electrical current inside an attached generator. What follows to the right of the boiler illustrates the process of scrubbing harmful sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other dangerous chemical compounds; it converts them into a sludge which has to be disposed of separately.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Retrieved from on April 6, 2010

How is coal produced, distributed, and consumed?

Although coal mining technology has evolved and efficiency has vastly improved, the process of mining has not changed since coal was first discovered: you need to get to it, break it into pieces, and then transport it somewhere to be burned.

coal 3
Figure 3: Almost half of U.S. electric power is generated by coal.

Retrieved from on April 6, 2010.

Today coal is extracted in two ways, either by underground or surface mining. Most of the world's coal is underground and can only be reached by digging tunnels and shaft. According to Larry Thomas, author of "Coal Geology" and mining expert: "the cost of sinking shafts to the level of the coal seam (or just below, to provide a water drainage sump) is often the largest single cost in developing an underground mine."

It can take two years or longer to complete these shafts which can run 1000 meters underground or deeper. This makes underground mining very costly in terms of both equipment and labor. It is also much more dangerous for workers than surface mining because of underground gases, flooding, explosions, and roof collapses.

To avoid these high costs, mining companies worldwide are shifting to surface mining. Surface mining means extracting coal "by excavating all of the material above, between, and including the coal seam (s)."5 There are two basic types of surface mining: strip mining, during which the earth above the coal is dug up and dumped next to the working area, and opencast mining, in which the earth is dumped further away.6

This shift from underground to surface mining has been made possible because of both new geological knowledge and new technologies which allow coal companies to use coals of all qualities—not just the highest quality coal which is usually buried deeply underground.

Once the coal is mined, mining companies move coal to consumers across the planet by land and by sea via rail, road, barge, and ship. In the U.S., almost 70% of U.S. coal was transported by train in 2007, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Electrical power plants are the number one consumer of coal. This is the process by which coal goes from the mine to the power plant. First, buyer and seller have to determine the coal's quality. Once the coal has arrived at the plant, the plant feeds it through a mill and then into a combustion chamber. This is where the waste products that contaminate our air and water are generated. Exhaust gases from the combustion chamber contain particulates, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds.

Barbara Freese, environmental attorney, regulatory expert, and author of Coal: A Human History, describes the inside of a Minnesota power plant:

"Everything was so mechanized that we saw only a handful of people. First, we saw the massive pulverizers that grind coal into a black powder finer than flour, and then the equipment that blasts the coal powder and heated air into the three boilers ... each boiler is lined with hundreds of miles of steel piping. These pipes water becomes superheated steam with enough pressure to make the nearby electric generators spin at twice the speed of sound ... . At the boiler, there was at first not much to see. Rising up through several floors of the plant, the boiler up close was just a warm, vibrating metal wall. It was hard to believe that on the other side was a 3,000 degree Fahrenheit fireball some forty-five feet across and ten stories high devouring up to five hundred tons of powdered coal each hour."7

This plant consumes 6.5 million tons of coal a year to produce power for two million homes. Each of its three boilers cost one billion dollars.

The ten-story tall fireball behind the metal wall represents changes in coal production technology. That fireball was once a tiny coal fire in millions of homes. We no longer see that fire or its costs. Freese writes: "From the consumer's perspective, coal has virtually disappeared—its sooty black chunks magically transformed into squeaky-clean electrons."

Who Regulates It?

Deadly explosions at a Kentucky nine, nearly 35 years ago, spurred the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The New York Times described the agency as "fundamentally weak in several areas ... " and reported that it does not always use the power that it has. It lacks subpoena power which limits its investigations. And its investigators do not have the same power as inspectors at other agencies because they are not law enforcement officers.9

The country's latest and worst mining disaster in 25 years, when 29 miners were killed in West Virginia in April 2010, is an example of weak regulation in the US. The Mine Safety and Health administration cited this same mine for hundreds of violations during 2009, some of them very serious. In fact, on the day of the accident, that same morning, the New York Times reported that a federal inspector visited the mine, made an "imminent danger" run-through, checked for dust, and examined the toilets. He took two air readings for methane that were negative. He cited the mine for an electrical cable problem and lack of escape routes. Hours later, the mine blew up.

Who benefits, who suffers?

Coal is the seed of empire. In the early 1200s, much of England's coal was owned by the most powerful global institution at that time—the Roman Catholic Church. England later became the first industrialized nation in the world because of this coal. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. had surpassed England as the world's largest coal producer. Recently, China has replaced the U.S. as the primary producer of coal worldwide.

On a macro scale, every citizen of the U.S. benefits from coal. U.S. economic growth has depended on it for over 150 years. Coal provides about half of the nation's electricity and its use of coal has nearly tripled since 1960, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The U.S. government's "Annual Coal Report," states that production hit a record level of over one billion tons in 2008 and domestic consumption is also over one billion tons. On a daily basis, that's an average of 20 pounds of coal for every person in the U.S., according to the Washington Post.

For most Americans, unlimited 24-hour access to electricity is an inalienable right. In many parts of the country, this flip-a-switch freedom depends on coal. While half the world's population still spends time and energy every day to burn solid biofuels like wood, coal has liberated Americans from the relentless rhythm of tending a fire. "Give me liberty or give me death," Patrick Henry said. Maybe he should have added "And give me coal."

"God made the coal and he hid it. Then some fool found it, and we've been in trouble ever since."

From the United Mine Workers Journal, 197610

On the micro level, however, coal has written a different story. Historically, it has been the underground mineworkers who suffered the most and the most directly. In the 17th century, the worst conditions were reportedly in the Scottish coal mines. Freese writes: "whole families were bonded for life to a coal mine ... families came to be regarded as property, and if a mine was sold, they would be sold with it. Those who tried to escape this industrial slavery, if caught, were tortured in irons along with witches."

Coal mining in the United States continues to be a very hazardous occupation because of explosions, poisonous gases, floods, collapsed roofs, and respiratory diseases like black lung. Historian David Corbin writes: "The miner who lived in southern West Virginia company towns worked in the most dangerous coal mines in the United States. Between 1890 and 1912 the mines of West Virginia had the highest death rate among the nation's coal-producing states; its mine-accident death rate was five times higher than that of any European country. Indeed, during World War I the southern West Virginia coal diggers had a higher proportional death rate than the American Expeditionary Force." (The American Expeditionary Force is another name for the US army in WWI.)11

Over 100,000 miners have died in mining accidents in the US. In 1969, the United States Congress passed comprehensive mining safety legislation known as the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. But the death of 12 miners in the Sago mine catastrophe in 2006 prompted Congress to reform inspection procedures to prioritize worker safety over profits. Since the Sago reforms, the New York Times reports that mining deaths have dropped to their lowest in a century—34 in 2009—because of increased citations and fines.12 This number does not take into account the approximately 1,000 former coal miners who die annually from black lung disease, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Miners in the U.S. also suffered because of their efforts to organize labor unions. Some were killed by the National Guard while protesting abysmal labor conditions:

  • In Pittsburgh, in 1877, the National Guard massacred 26 unarmed miners.
  • In Latimer, Pennsylvania in 1887, guardsmen shot and killed 19 unarmed miners.
  • In Colorado in 1914, the National Guard attacked miners living in a striker tent colony and killed five adults and 11 children.13

In terms of costs to the Earth and our natural resources, coal use affects our water, our mountains, and our air.


Coal mining pollutes both surface and groundwater; groundwater from deep mines often becomes more acidic or saline and may need to be treated. Acidic and alkaline mine water has sterilized entire areas and created "industrial wastelands" in Europe and the U.S.14

The problems do not evaporate when the mining stops. Acid water still seeps from old abandoned mines and continues to kill life in thousands of streams in Appalachia. In traditional mining areas, where water has been removed from underground mines for over 100 years, when the mining stops, the groundwater table rises. Coal geologist Larry Thomas writes: "Closure of deep mines in Yorkshire, U.K., and the cessation of associated dewatering have led to concerns about the possible future pollution of groundwater and surface water resources once groundwater rebound is complete."

Acid rain is another way coal pollutes our water supply. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides released from power plants and other sources, react in the atmosphere with water, oxygen, and other chemicals, and form acidic compounds called "acid rain." Acid rain has meant green hair in Sweden, disappearing fish in the Adirondacks, fewer salmon in Novia Scotia, missing trout in Virginia, and dieoffs of red spruce and sugar maples in the Northeast.15 And acid rain does not just affect the natural world; it degrades buildings, especially those made of limestone, as well. In 1990, because of acid rain, the U.S. Congress required plants to cut CO2 emissions by nearly half within a decade. Despite the measure, rainfall in some regions of the U.S. can still be ten times more acidic than normal.


One of the most ecologically damaging types of mining is mountaintop removal (MTM), which is essentially the ripping up of some of the U.S.'s oldest and most biologically diverse forests in order to harvest the ghosts of ancient forests below. Due to coal use, Americans have consumed over 470 mountaintops since the 1960s, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"In some eastern Kentucky counties, for mile after mile after mile, the land has been literally hacked to pieces. Whole mountain tops have been torn off and cast into the valleys ... It is a domestic Vietnam," wrote Wendell Berry in 1972.

Since that time, mountaintop removal has become even more widespread due to increased demand and the shift to surface mining. In the past two decades, Appalachia has lost over seven percent or 400,000 acres of its forests, along with 1,200 miles of streams that were buried or polluted, according to coal expert Jeff Goodell.

Proponents say MTM is cheaper than traditional underground mining because it requires less labor. However, in an article published in Science in January, 2010, scientists concluded that the practice has serious environmental impacts that cannot be mitigated and that it threatens biodiversity in the Appalachian region.

The study's authors called on the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop issuing mountaintop mining permits.

The contaminated byproducts of the Appalachian mountains are now held in over 700 slurry reservoirs. Some hold hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminants that can leach into surface and groundwater. And sometimes the dams fail, as happened on October 11, 2000 near Inez, Kentucky. This was U.S.'s worst "black water spill" and one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the Southeast; the volume of contaminated liquid equaled 30 Exxon Valdez spills. The slurry destroyed 70 miles of two streams and killed an estimated 1.6 million fish, along with other wildlife, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Black spills continue to occur. On December 22, 2008, a retention pond at a coal-burning power plant in Kentucky burst, spilling enough arsenic and mercury-laced coal ash to cover a square mile five feet deep. The ash spilled into the Emory River and into a neighborhood near Knoxville, Tennessee. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is still cleaning up this spill by removing the ash and then sending it by truck and train to landfills in Alabama and Louisiana. The TVA is sending much of the ash to Uniontown, Alabama, an African American community where the per capita income is just over $8,000 annually, according to US census data. Residents living near the Uniontown landfill are concerned about health issues and are reporting bad odors. Alabama is a state with weak regulatory agencies that do not enforce environmental laws.


Coal mining produced the world's first recognized pollution—air pollution. Sherlock Holmes skulking in an alley in the foggy gloom of London. Londoners stumbling into the Thames and drowning during coal fogs. Coal burning created these scenes in a city with air pollution so dense, that sometimes you could not see more than a few yards. Hundreds died in the late 1800s during the infamous fogs. During one four-day coal fog in December of 1873, between 270 and 700 people died.16 Despite the periodic mass deaths, it took until 1956 for the British parliament to ban the city's use of soft coal. The ban came after London's four-day infamous "Black Fog" of December, 1952, when visibility dropped to 11 inches and over 4,000 died due to sulfur dioxide poisoning.

Coal combustion pollutes the air by producing several types of emissions. Three of the most problematic for human health--sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulates--have been linked to acid rain, smog, and respiratory illnesses. The total number of deaths from coal-caused air pollution today is unknown but public health experts believe that particulate matter (soot) can cause chronic bronchitis, asthma, and even death. Mercury is also problematic when it travels from the air into the water supply where it can cause serious health problems for both humans and wildlife. And finally, coal-fired power plants are the number one emitter of carbon dioxide in the U.S., the greenhouse gas linked to global warming. Compared to the amount of energy it generates, coal emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide per unit as natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 was important because it increased national recognition of specific costs of burning coal, like allowing sulfur dioxide to escape into the air. The Clean Air Act made the use of scrubbers in coal-fired plants more common. Scrubbers collect harmful sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other dangerous chemical compounds and convert them into a sludge that still has to be disposed of separately.

It is the costs we do not see, in the form of greenhouse gasses spewing into the atmosphere, that could be the deadliest. For the miners who bore the first costs of coal, the deadly gas was carbon monoxide underground. To deal with it, they shared their lunches with rats and brought caged canaries into the mines—both creatures that served as a warning system. In this age of global warming, the dangerous gas is carbon dioxide above ground. We are the canaries.

Why do people argue about it?

Many of coal's environmental costs are still hidden, especially from those who do not live in coal country. Freese writes: "Now that nine out of every ten tons of the nation's coal vanishes into power plants, many Americans can harbor the illusion that coal is no longer a major energy source or a big environmental threat, even while the nation burns more of it than ever."

The future of coal is still a question mark as technology evolves. One new technology is carbon capture and sequestration which pumps CO2 into the ground where "ideally" it will remain safely stored. However, this method at present is very energy-intensive and reduces a power plant's energy output, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. We also do not know the potential environmental costs if this technology fails.

Optimism or pessimism over coal's future depends on the information source. The Union of Concerned Scientists states that new coal plants which have lower emissions, would cost far more than existing plants, produce less energy, and still have major impacts on air and water quality. The Department of Energy states that "Industry has found several ways to reduce sulfur, nitrogen oxides ... and other impurities from coal."

Will technology save us or will coal's future follow our historical pattern of simply moving the waste, and the costs, elsewhere, whether it is under the ground or under the ocean?

How do you recognize coal in the landscape?

Step outside. Now find the horizon. If you live in the northeast of the United States, what you see is a line determined by coal. On an average day, you are able to see approximately 14 miles away.But if you were standing outside in 1882, before Edison's coal-fired dynamo and Insull's power plant system dramatically increased our consumption rates of coal, you could see from 45 to 90 miles away. Our horizon today is limited by the tiny sulfate particles coming out of smokestacks that scatter sunlight. Therefore, coal is not only what you can see in the landscape, but what you can no longer see.

We already know some of the ways coal impacts the landscape. Mountaintop removal in West Virginia and mining accidents are prominent in the news. But there are less obvious ways that coal shaped the way our world works. Coal dictated transportation networks, like the canals of Great Britain that moved coal to industrial towns that needed it. Water pumped out of coal mines filled the canals that carried heavy loads at faster speeds than overland horse-drawn wagons. Coal also dictated the railway networks of 19th century Britain. When George Stephenson opened a railway between a coal town and a river town, the train was powered by the very coal it carried. Railroads soon crisscrossed the American continent, making the technology and transportation of coal a visible part of the daily lives of Americans.

Coal has not only shaped our physical landscapes, it has shaped our political landscapes, especially our labor movement. The Western Federation of Miners (WFM), an industrial union, was one of the few major unions that included all levels of industrial workers, both skilled and unskilled, in contrast to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that excluded certain types of workers. The WFM was the driving force behind the miner's strike of Cripple Creek, Colorado, that turned violent; the federal government intervened on behalf of the miners. In the early 20th century, the WFM was a key player in forming the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Coal has determined the shape and size of our homes, especially, the layout of our kitchens. Coal was burned in houses, first in open fires, and then in stoves. Not only was coal burned inside these stoves—coke was needed to get the iron ore to build them in the first place. Stoves that were made with coal and that burned coal changed the division of labor in the kitchen since men no longer gathered wood or other fuel for an open fire. Women were responsible for cleaning the stove and refilling it, a task that could take up to an hour a day. As women mastered their stoves, they were able to switch from one-pot cooking to preparing multiple dishes at a time. Moving pots further from or closer to the fire box meant varying levels of heat; this allowed cooks to prepare different kinds of food at the same time. This shift in technology probably meant that women were spending more time cooking than they had before.

Some communities are not waiting for an answer. In Madison, Wisconsin, for the first time in 100 years, coal is no longer being burned at a downtown power plant. The plant is switching to natural gas. This is just one of six plants in Wisconsin that is reducing or eliminating the use of coal. This shift came after the Sierra Club sued the state of Wisconsin for emissions violations.

coal 4
Figure 4: On the isthmus in downtown Madison, WI

Source: Rachel Gross

Bike down the isthmus in downtown Madison, WI, and you will notice how coal is part of the landscape. The Capital City Bike Trail runs right by the century-old Blount Street coal-fired power plant. Passers-by less attuned to energy networks around them may not even notice its four towering smoke stacks. Railroad tracks run parallel to the bike path, marking the transportation network that stretches across the country to connect consumers with their power supply. In 2010, the Blount Street power plant, along with UW-Madison's Charter Street plant, stopped burning coal as they converted to natural gas and biofuels.The air in Madison may be cleaner, the horizon sharper, but Madison Gas and Electric still uses coal to generate electricity. The Oak Creek Power Plant, 80 miles from Madison on Lake Michigan, provides electricity for Madison residents. Now someone else is located downwind.

To Learn More

The Energy Information Agency. Official Energy Statistics from the United States Government.

"How Coal Works." Union of Concerned Scientists,

Works Consulted

Brimblecombe, Peter, The Big Smoke: A history of air pollution in London since medieval times, New York: Methuen & Co., 1987.

Buckley, Geoffrey L., Extracting Appalachia: Images of the Consolidation Coal Company 1910-1945, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2004.

Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2003.

Goodell, Jeff. Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Martin, Edward A. The Story of a Piece of Coal: What It Is, Whence It Comes, and Whither It Goes. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1919.

Nicolls, William Jasper. The Story of American Coals. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1896.

Schmidt, Richard A. Coal in America: An Encyclopedia of Reserves, Production and Use. New York: McGraw-Hill Publications Company, 1979.

Schwartz, Ruth Cowan. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Thomas, Larry. Coal Geology. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2002.

The Energy Information Agency. Official Energy Statistics from the United States Government.

The World Coal Institute.

Coal Explained (2010) Retrieved from on April 6, 2010.


Coke: The product you get from baking coal at high heat to get rid of impurities and concentrate carbon so it can be used in the iron making process, much like wood is burned to get charcoal.

Smelting: producing a metal from an ore. In this case, smelting means producing iron from iron ore. The pure carbon of coke oxidizes the iron ore, leaving iron in its place.


1Guy Gugliotta, "The World's Largest Fossil Wilderness," Smithsonian Magazine, July 2009, 2.

2 Illinois State Geological Survey, "Pennsylvanian Mire Forest," University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,

3 Ibid.

4 Larry Thomas, Coal Geology, (West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2002), 359.

5 Thomas, Coal Geology, 247.

6 Ibid.

7 Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History. (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2003), pg. 164-165.

8 Michael Cooper, Gardiner Harris, and Eric Lipton, "Mine Agency Powers Limited and Often Unused," New York Times, April 11, 2010.

9 Buckley, Geoffrey L., Extracting Appalachia: Images of the Consolidation Coal Company 1910-1945, (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2004), 158.

10 Buckley, Extracting Appalachia, 103.

11 "Sago, Four Years Later," editorial in the New York Times, February 24, 2010.

12 Freese, Coal: A Human History, 157.

13 Thomas, Coal Geology, 231.

14 Freese, Coal: A Human History, 171.

15 Freese, Coal: A Human History, 99-100.

16 Brimblecombe, Peter, The Big Smoke: A history of air pollution in London since medieval times, (New York: Methuen & Co., 1987), 166-169.