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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Coal mining in Rhode Island?

Coal mine in Cranston
From 1990 to 1999, I served as the staff director for the Citizens Coal Council which was then based in Washington, DC. We were a coalition of local community groups in active coal mining areas ranging from the Navajo Nation to Pennsylvania, from Alabama to Montana. We tried to protect communities from having their drinking water polluted, homes destroyed and lands devastated by both strip-mining and underground mining. We also worked on getting old abandoned mines reclaimed.

In the course of researching the extent of the country’s abandoned mine problems, I stumbled onto the shocking fact that there was once extensive active coal-mining across Rhode Island. There was major mining on Aquidneck Island (especially in Portsmouth), Cranston, the Blackstone Valley (especially Cumberland) and Providence.

Portsmouth coal mining operation
The first commercial coal mine in Rhode Island opened in 1808. The last one, in Cranston near today's Garden City shopping center, closed in 1959.

Rhode Island’s coal deposits were not mined with the same intensity as, for example, Appalachia for a couple of reasons. One was that Rhode Island coal is the very hard anthracite variety which burns very hot, but is much harder to ignite than the more common, softer bituminous variety. Eastern Pennsylvania was famous for its anthracite coal as well as for very early mine worker organizing by the Irish miners who are known to history as the Molly McGuires.

Rhode Island’s coal seams are also thinner than the seams in Pennsylvania by half – 2 to 4 feet thick compared to 4 to 6 in Pennsylvania, although there was one seam found - but not exploited - in Bristol that measured almost 27 feet thick.
Cranston mine near what is now Reservoir Ave
near the state office complex at Sockanosset
In today’s modern coal-mining, even a thin seam can be cheaply mined through a method called “mountain-top removal.” This is becoming a preferred method in West Virginia where earth moving equipment shears off the top of slopes down to the top of the coal seam and drops the rock and soil into the valleys between the slopes (‘valley fill”). Then you just scoop up the exposed coal and move on to the next slope.

This smooths out the landscape – the coal industry argues that this is a tidy solution that provides wonderful benefits for communities that now have cleared spaces that are perfect for development. They’re the right size for a prison (West Virginia has an amazing number of federal and state penal institutions) or Wal-Mart Supercenters.

There is, as you might imagine, some collateral damage to the mountain ecology, especially stream flow. But, hey, we need the electricity and it’s better than some damned wind turbines!

As conservatives and anti-environmentalists turn us away from developing alternative energy and back to “Drill, Baby, Drill” and “Dig, Baby, Dig,” what about those deposits of high-energy anthracite left untouched under half of Rhode Island?

And do those deposits on Aquidneck Island stretch into South County? Active mining peaked in the mid-1800s and pretty much ended a century ago, long before modern surveying methods would have been used to search for mineable deposits in our area. Imagine though what could happen if that anthracite seam runs from Portsmouth and under the glacial moraine along the northern length of Route One.

Author: Will Collette