The first coal mines in Virginia were developed in the early 1700's, as the Richmond area was settled by European immigrants. The coal was carried from the mines in the Triassic Basin, near Midlothian in Chesterfield County and near Tuckahoe in western Henrico County, to be transported on boats via the James and Appomattox rivers.
The Chesterfield Railroad was the first Virginia railroad and the second commercial railroad in the United States. The rails were wood with an iron strap on top - and the railroad started without any locomotives. Cars loaded with coal moved by gravity downhill to the docks on the James River. In places where the line ran uphill, mules helped the cars climb some slopes. The empty cars were hauled back uphill by the mules to the mine, to be reloaded again:1
The major coal fields in western Virginia were not developed until the arrival of the railroads in the 1880's. The value of Virginia coal depends upon its:
Today, the coal in Virginia that is economical to mine is concentrated in the mountainous southwestern region. Virginia's bituminous coal used primarily for generating energy - it is "steam coal," not "metallurgical coal." Even low-quality coal, with a high sulfur content and buried deep underground, might be worth the high cost of underground mining if transportation costs were low - and that would be possible if there was a power plant located near the mouth of the mine.
However, there are few power plants located next to Virginia mines, in part because there is little water for cooling the boilers in such plants. The Clinch River Power Plant can use the water from that river, but the Virginia Electric Power Company had to build a new lake up on a ridge for the Mount Storm power plant in Grant County, West Virginia.
Most Virginia coal is shipped by rail to power plants on the Ohio river or to three major ports - Charleston (in South Carolina), Norfolk (by the Norfolk Southern Railroad), and Newport News (by CSX Railroad). Short trips are less expensive - and for the mines in far southwestern Virginia near Cumberland Gap, Charleston is closer than the two Virginia ports. The business of hauling coal creates about two-thirds of the freight rail traffic for the two Class 1 railroads in Virginia, CSX and Norfolk Southern.2 Nationwide, coal hauling is only 40-45% of the rail traffic.3
Low-cost transport, by rail and ship, has made it possible for Virginia to export coal since development of the original mines in Midlothian. However, Southwestern Virginia coal mines that sell much of their product to power plants along the Ohio River also have to compete with mines in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois - even Wyoming, where low-sulfur coal can be stripmined and shipped by unit trains to power plants in the Midwest. Hauling coal by mule-drawn cart is ancient history now. Modern railroads have made it possible to ship bulk coal long distances at relatively low cost - and as a result, Virginia coal has to compete with other sources based on the quality of the coal as well as geography.
The economics of coal transport affect coal mines around the world. energy policy in Alaska is focused on developing oil and gas resources that are easier to transport, but on the Arctic coastal plain the northern Alaska coal fields form "the largest coal-resource province in the nation." However, the Alaskan coal is too far from market - and too low in BTU's per ton - to justify the investment in transporting coal for export. The one coal mine in the middle of Alaska fuels the nearby power plant in Fairbanks.4
Shipping coal by rail to domestic power plants is cost-effective today, but the rail traffic from the mountains to the Virginia ports on the Chesapeake Bay has diminished substantially. In 2005, the Norfolk Southern hauled just 1-2 coal "drags" per day between Roanoke and Norfolk.5
In 2000, Virginia exported no steam coal overseas; most of the exports from Hampton Roads today are metallurgical ("met") coal used to make steel.6
CSX hauls coal to Newport News for export, while Norfolk Southern hauls to Pier 6 at Norfolk
The Norfolk Southern coal processing terminal in Hampton Roads, Pier 6, was opened in 1962 and today is the largest in the United States. In 2012, that facility in Norfolk moved 38% of all coal mined domestically and shipped to foreign customers. In 2013, it emptied 200,000 rail cars and shipped 22 million tons of coal to customers overseas.
The economic impacts on Norfolk were substantial, but the envionmental impacts were also significant. Coal dust particulates, fine particles of powdered carbon, blow off the rail cars and conveyor belts, polluting back yards and potentially affected human health all the way to the Ghent neighborhood. Norfolk Southern relies upon chemicals to suppress the movement of "fugitive" dust. Rail cars loaded with coal are not required to have covers or tarps comparable to what is required of loaded trucks traveling on Virginia highways.7
1. McCartney, Martha W., "Historical Overview Of The Midlothian Coal Mining Company Tract - Chesterfield County, Virginia," December, 1989 http://midlomines.org/History_EXZH.html (last checked July 27, 2013)
2. Association of American Railroads, "Railroad Service in Virginia - 2000," www.tomorrowsrailroads.com/pdf/VA.pdf (last checked April 25, 2004)
3. Association of American Railroads, "Class I Railroad Statistics - Type of Freight Carried for Year 2003" (last checked April 25, 2004)
4. "Coal Resources of Alaska," Information Circular 17, State of Alaska - Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, September 30, 1983, p.5 (last checked April 15, 2004)
5. "Pocahontas Region Coal Routes," Trains Magazine, p. 35, April 2005
6. Virginia Coal, Markets and Consumption www.energy.vt.edu/vept/coal/consumption/distribution.html (last checked April 25, 2004)
7. "Virginia - State Profile and Energy Estimates," US Energy Information Administration (EIA), http://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=VA; "'Fugitive dust' from Norfolk coal cars stirs health fears," The Virginian-Pilot, April 22, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/2014/04/fugitive-dust-norfolk-coal-cars-stirs-health-fears (last checked April 23, 2014)