"Why do I love coal mining?" said John Hadesty, a coal miner for 25 years and currently Safety Director for Lehigh Anthracite. "Maybe it's best explained by saying that – when we were little, we played with Tonka trucks. Now we get paid to do the same thing. So we love that when we were little, and we love it now."
Lehigh Anthracite, based in the Tamaqua/Coaldale area, has breathed new life into what seemed for a while to be a dying anthracite coal industry. Their resurrection has produced over 100 jobs for the community, and with an infusion of capital, engineering and equipment, is well on its way to rebuilding the region's economy with an achievable goal of shipping one million tons per year of anthracite.
Anthracite, which, according to Hadesty, is thought of by Lehigh Anthracite as an "industrial mineral" rather than a form of coal, is in demand and is faring well in competition with bituminous coal and Marcellus Shale natural gas.
Why? Because it has properties that the competitors cannot match. It is not dirty like bituminous coal. It is very low in sulfur and ash. Anthracite from Lehigh Anthracite's iconic Mammoth vein can reach purities of 89 percent carbon. That's why it is in demand for water filtration and steelmaking besides its use in power production.
Lehigh Anthracite was formed in 2010 after Bruce Toll and Doug Topkis bought the 8,000-acre anthracite property following the bankruptcy of the reincarnated Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.
Quick history. In 1791, Philip Ginter discovered "stone coal" near what is now Summit Hill, opening up the purchase of the 8,000-acre anthracite-rich tract between Jim Thorpe and Tamaqua by the Lehigh Coal Mine Company. Unsuccessful at developing the mining and transport of the coal, the lands were leased, then acquired by Josiah White's Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.
Through the 19th and part of the 20th centuries, LC&N mined the tract in Summit Hill, Nesquehoning, Lansford, Coaldale and Tamaqua. In the 1960s, LC&N ceased its operations. The coal lands were acquired by the Fazio Brothers. Bethlehem Steel bought it in 1974 and ran it until 1989. In 1989, James Curran bought the property and reestablished the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company brand. By 2008, the new LC&N's plans for expansion put them into debt as sales plummeted during the recession, and they became bankrupt.
Housing developer Bruce Toll and his son-in-law, investment manager Doug Topkis, had lent money to LC&N and with hopes to recover their investment, purchased LC&N's assets for $14.8 million.
Inexperienced with coal operations, Toll and Topkis partnered with Robindale Energy to manage the anthracite operations, with Lehigh Anthracite becoming the their sixth division. The deal gave the partners the 8,000-acre site, the Greenwood Breaker, miscellaneous mining equipment, a sheaf of 24 environmentally related mining infractions, and six veteran mining staff.
John Hadesty became the safety director and a mine safety instructor. In its turn of the last century hey day, about 11,000 men worked the anthracite mines. Through automation and reduced production, the number was reduced to about 100 during the new LC&N period, with only six surviving the transition. Under Lehigh Anthracite, the company is back to a staff of about 100 with the production going full tilt.
This, they are accomplishing through automation: equipment, computers and video cameras. With cameras placed strategically throughout the Greenwood Breaker, Programable Logic Controllers assigned to the unit operations, and a central computer monitoring station, the processing plant can be started, monitored and operated by a single operator.
Lehigh Anthracite operates on five 10-hour days, with additional shifts to maintain the breaker equipment. Hadesty says that the workers enjoy the extra overtime pay.
The mining operations continue in the vast coal veins known as the Mammoth, Primrose and Orchard. These are subsurface coal seams that have been mined for two centuries and remain as large reserves. As behemoth buckets cut deep into the earth, holes in the mountainside are revealed which upon closer inspection are the deep mine tunnels of a century ago.
Care must be taken when processing the coal from these formerly mined tracts. Because they were once mined then abandoned, a certain amount of metal equipment like tools and rail tracks were left behind. When the stripped coal is fed into the crusher, a metal detector alarms and stops the operation when metal is about to feed into the crusher and a worker currently John Hadesty's son, Michael, a Penn State mine engineering student on a summer work study has to run out to the crusher's input conveyor and clear the metal. Over a five minute period, he removed a rusted ax head and several feet of track.
No longer is coal deep mined in commercial quantities. Mining is conducted by surface methods using excavators and drag lines with equipment that can cost millions of dollars, reaching down up to 300 feet. To meet environmental regulations, Lehigh Anthracite works from one section to another, using the new spoil to backfill the mined area.
John Hadesty feels that coal mining is a family business, and he is hoping that one day his son will join him at Lehigh Anthracite. "I'd like to see Michael travel the world and learn about the field," John said," and then come back and make us better."