POTTSVILLE, Pa. - How's this for irony: Pennsylvania sits atop 7 billion tons of anthracite coal, but consumers who use it for home heating have been having a tough time getting it this winter.
Coal yards in Schuylkill County, the nation's No. 1 producer of anthracite, say they are rationing coal to existing customers and telling new ones to look elsewhere.
"I've been burning coal for 20 years, and this is the first year I've had any trouble getting it," said George Watts, of Dillsburg, who uses coal in his home and business.
The culprit is lack of production. Most coal for home heating comes from underground mines, and the number of working anthracite mines is steadily dwindling.
Miners say it's getting harder to earn a living because of the increased cost of worker's compensation insurance, along with stagnant coal prices. But most of their ire is directed at the federal mine inspectors who they say are hassling them out of existence. It's a long-running battle that's resulted in the closure of scores of mines.
The shortage potentially affects thousands of homeowners who still heat with anthracite, a hard coal mined only in eastern Pennsylvania. Some worry that if the shortage persists, they'll have to convert to a more expensive kind of heat, like oil or gas.
Candice Craig has more basic concerns. Her coal hopper was nearly empty a few weeks ago, and with the Northeast in a deep freeze, she worried about keeping her 2-year-old daughter warm. The yard where Craig usually buys her coal said it had none to sell her. Other retailers also turned her down.
Craig finally found a retailer willing to sell her a tiny size of anthracite called undersized rice, which is used up more quickly than the larger size she typically gets. She burned through nearly $200 worth of coal in two weeks, straining the household budget.
"You wonder how they can have a shortage," Craig said. "We are the coal capital of Pennsylvania and there is no coal here."
Evidence of a shortage is, so far, anecdotal; the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has not yet released 2004 production statistics, let alone figures for January and February. But wholesalers, retailers, miners and consumers say there's not enough.
"There are still some folks who are heating their homes with coal and they are having a hard time purchasing the product," said Paul Hummel, chief of the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.
In Schuylkill County, about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia and the epicenter of the anthracite industry, coal processors say they are churning out far less than normal. Some have shuttered completely on days when there was not enough coal to start the plant. Delivery trucks line up six or eight at a time and wait hours for their loads.
Coal taken from strip mines is readily available, but the recovery rate, or percentage of usable coal extracted from each ton of raw material, is a lot lower than it is for coal taken from deep mines. That's because there is a lot more dirt and rock mixed in. And that means less coal processed during an eight-hour shift.
The problem is largely confined to Pennsylvania, home to nine of the 10 counties with the highest number of households using coal for heating, according to census data. Fifteen percent of Schuylkill County households, about 9,000, heat with coal, according to the 2000 Census.
DiRenzo Coal Co., a processing plant that sells directly to the public, has been giving priority to customers who rely on coal as their sole source of heat. But general manager Mike DiRenzo said it's tough to tell whether people are being truthful.
"It is a juggling act that no one wants to deal with. It shouldn't be like this in Pennsylvania, especially right in the middle of the coal field," said DiRenzo, whose company is processing 75 percent less coal than normal.
At Pine Creek Coal Co., phones ring constantly with homeowners saying they are running out. "I'm not taking any new customers at this point. I can barely supply the customers I have," said Robert J. Klinger, whose grandfather started the business.
With demand this healthy, why not simply boost production?
Although economic conditions play a big role, miners are quick to blame the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, whose inspectors have been citing anthracite mines with increased frequency.
Miners say the federal law dealing with mine safety is geared toward bituminous coal, a softer coal that is mined in over half the country and fuels most of the nation's coal-fired power plants; they want laws that make sense for anthracite mining. Because bituminous coal and anthracite coal are mined differently, Pennsylvania has two separate mine safety laws, one for each type.
MSHA began stepping up enforcement of the federal law after a new management team from the bituminous coal fields was installed in the agency's Wilkes-Barre office. Federal violations shot up 60 percent from 2000 to 2003 before dipping slightly in 2004, and many underground mine operators left the business. Violations issued by state inspectors went down each of those years before ticking up in 2004.
"Our own government is stabbing us in the back and putting us out of business, and we're not big enough for people to care," said Larry Graver, a fifth-generation coal miner who left the mines to work at a processing plant.
Cindy Rothermel, who operates an underground mine with her husband, Randy, compared the lines at coal processing plants to those at gas stations during the 1970s energy crisis. She said she gets six to 10 calls a day from homeowners seeking to buy coal directly from them.
"Folks are getting frozen pipes," she said. "It all boils down to MSHA closing the mines."
John Correll, deputy assistant secretary of MSHA, said in a statement that regulatory enforcement has helped drive down fatalities throughout the industry.
Still, MSHA sent a top official to meet with U.S. Rep Tim Holden and miners earlier this month. Holden, D-Pa., said he received assurances that MSHA would be more "consumer friendly."
"I've heard those promises before," Holden said, "and they haven't happened."
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