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General Information

Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock composed mostly of carbon and hydrocarbons. It is the most abundant fossil fuel produced in the United States. Hundreds of millions of years ago swamps existed in areas where coal is now present. The various plants in these swamps died, fell into water, and were covered with sediment before they completely disintegrated. Afterwards, pressure and heat slowly altered the buried vegetable matter. The kinds of coal, in increasing order of alteration or “rank” are: lignite (brown coal, immature), high-volatile bituminous coal, medium-volatile bituminous coal, low-volatile bituminous coal, semianthracite, and anthracite. Low-volatile bituminous, and semianthracite are present in significant quantities in west-central Arkansas. The coal ranges from low-volatile bituminous coal in the western part of the coal field to semianthracite in the eastern part (1).

Farrell-Cooper coal mining operation at Bates, Arkansas
 Farrell-Cooper coal mining operation at Bates, Arkansas (circa 2006 photo). The coal that was mined at this locale is the Pennsylvanian Lower Hartshorne coal which has a rank of low-volatile bituminous.
 
Onsite primary crusher stockpiles the Lower Harshorne coal on site
Onsite primary crusher stockpiles the Lower Hartshorne coal at the Bates, Arkansas operation before final shipment of the product to Oklahoma power plants (photo taken in 2006).


Use of Arkansas Coal

Arkansas coal has been used largely to produce steam to power electric generating plants and steam locomotives, as metallurgical coal in steel mills, to heat homes and buildings, and as a source of coal tar and other chemicals. The chemical and physical properties of a coal determine the use. For example, the hard coals, even though they produce less heat, are better adapted to domestic use because they give off less smoke than the soft varieties. Soft coals are usually suitable for the manufacture of coke and coke by-products such as coal tar, ammonium sulfate, gas, benzol, toluol, naphtha, and naphthalene (the principal component of moth balls). Almost all Arkansas hard coals are relatively low in volatile matter or "non-coking." However, some coal in the western part of the coal field becomes coke when blended with high-volatile bituminous coal from other areas. A blend containing 10 to 20 percent low-volatile bituminous coal and 80 to 90 percent high-volatile bituminous coal yields a strong coke that is desirable for metallurgical use. Presently, coal from Sebastian County goes into the manufacture of "charcoal" briquettes.  One of the principal advantages of Arkansas coal is that it gives off little smoke when burned. Another is that its sulfur content is relatively low, compared to many coals mined in the United States and elsewhere.



Location and General Geology

Arkansas's coal fields are located in the Arkansas River valley between the western border of the state and Russellville, encompassing an area about 33 miles wide and 60 miles long (1). Formations of Pennsylvanian age in west-central Arkansas contain at least 25 coal beds, but only the Lower Hartshorne, Charleston, and Paris coal beds have been mined to any appreciable extent (2). The Lower Hartshorne coal bed near the base of the McAlester Formation (Des Moines, Pennsylvanian) is the thickest and the most extensive coal bed in Arkansas. It has been, and will continue to be, the most economically important coal bed (1). Commercial mining of coal in Arkansas has been limited to Johnson, Sebastian, Logan, Franklin, Pope, and Scott Counties (2).

Arkansas Valley Coal Field

Arkansas Valley Coal Field as drawn on the base of the McAlester Formation. (Modified from Haley, 1987.)



Arkansas Mining and Production

Arkansas coal appeared in literature as early as 1818 (3). The first recorded mine output in Arkansas was 220 tons in 1848.  After the extension of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad around 1873, coal from the Coal Hill mines in Johnson County was marketed (1). At the Old Spadra mine in Johnson County, a steam plant was installed in 1873. When the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway was extended south to Fort Smith in 1887, numerous mining operations began at Huntington, Hackett, Jenny Lind, Paris, Charleston, Scranton, and other localities in the Arkansas Valley, eventually resulting in extensive development (4).

Coal was first mined in Arkansas from open pits (strip mines). However, as production increased, it became difficult to mine the remaining near-surface coals with the equipment then available, so underground methods were adopted. For many years, most coal was produced from underground mines. With the gradual introduction of larger surface mining equipment, especially draglines, it became economically feasible to resume mining from open cuts. Since 1957, surface mining output of coal has exceeded that from underground mines (4).

From 1880 to 1920, coal ranked first in the value of Arkansas’ mineral and fuel output, but since 1922 the value of oil has exceeded that of coal. The peak year of coal mining activity in Arkansas was 1909, when annual production reached nearly 2,400,000 short tons. According to the USGS, the original reserves of coal in Arkansas prior to mining were over 2.2 billion short tons (2). Approximately 106.8 million short tons of coal had been mined through 2007 (Table 1). The remaining reserves in Arkansas are more than 2 billion short tons. Assuming a 50 percent loss in mining, the recoverable reserves of coal should be approximately 1 billion tons.

Table 1. Annual Coal Production (1,000 tons)
Year
Surface
Underground
Total
1840-1927 988.78* 58,272.1 59,260.8
1928-1966 8,926.9 32,025.0 40951.9
1967 144.0 45.0 189
1968 152.0 59.0 211
1969 167.0 61.0 228
1970 217.0 51.0 268
1971 236.0 40.0 276
1972 420.0 8.0 428
1973 431.0 3.0 434
1974 455.0
--
455.0
1975 488.0
--
488.0
1976 481.7 24.0 505.7
1977 442.7 24.0 466.7
1978 319.3
--
319.3
1979 224.7
--
224.7
1980 203.0
--
203.0
1981 220.0
--
220.0
1982 100.1
--
100.1
1983 88.0
--
88.0
1984 74.6
--
74.6
1985 49.3
--
49.3
1986 105.3
--
105.3
1987 137.3
--
137.3
1988** 66.4
--
66.4
1989 107.0
--
107.0
1990 69.1
--
69.1
1991 46.9
--
46.9
1992 63.2
--
63.2
1993 63.8 0.029 63.8
1994 45.5
--
45.5
1995 44.3
--
44.3
1996 19.4
--
19.4
1997 18.4
--
18.4
1998 36.3
--
36.3
1999 34.1
--
34.1
2000 16.3
--
16.3
2001 16.5 1.0 17.5
2002 13.0 1.8 14.8
2003 6.6 1.1 7.7
2004 43.3 1.9 45.2
2005 197.0
--
197.0
2006 111.5 0.6 112.1
2007 2.4 56.6 59.0
2008 1.8 100.6 102.4
2009 0.7 4.2 4.9
2010 1.2 16.3 17.5
2011 5.2 94.0 99.2
TOTAL 16,101.6 90,890.2 106,991.7
* First recorded production in 1918.
** In 1988, over 221,799 tons of lignite were mined.



References:

(1) Haley, B. R., 1960, Coal resources of Arkansas, 1954: U. S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1072-P, p. 795-831.
(2) Haley, B. R., 1987, Resource of low-volatile bituminous coal and semianthracite in west-central Arkansas, 1978: U. S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1632, 54 p.
(3) Winslow, A, 1888, The geology of the coal regions, a preliminary report upon a portion of the coal regions of Arkansas: Arkansas Geological Survey Annual Report for 1888, v. III, 109 p.
(4) Hendricks, T. A., and Parks, B, 1937, Geology and mineral resources of the western part of the Arkansas coal field: U. S. Geological Survey Bulletin 847-E, p. 189-224.


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