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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Working in a Coal Mine

Arrgh!! this post has been difficult to write. I have started it about 10 times now.

It started out with a complaint about flying and airports, but I soon realized that would balloon into an entire post by itself, and would best be left until a later date. Since I am having such a hard time getting this out there I will just list the main events and elaborate as necessary.

  • I flew out Sunday, May 17th to Charleston, WV with a small stop over in Cincinnati. We flew on regional jets which have even less room than regular jets (I have no idea how that is possible).

  • We grabbed a quick bite to eat after getting our rental car and then headed to the hotel. I slept like garbage because the place smelled like smoke (so much for a non-smoking room), and the bed was pretty uncomfortable.

  • Charleston is a beautiful city. Imagine someone took a big handful of city stuff and just randomly flung it at a tree covered mountain that is what it looks like. There doesn't seem to be a gradual transition from city to wild space like you see just about everywhere. You go from an heavily urbanized area one second to heavy forest the next. The Kanawha (pronounced Kanaw) river runs through the middle of the town and always seemed to have a nice fog covering it in the morning. I have included a pic of the river.

  • Monday we spent the day teaching GIS tips to one of the engineers in our field office there (this isn't all that interesting but it was fun to talk to all the people there and hear their accents). Monday night we went out to eat at a place called Quaker Steak, I guess it is a chain restaurant, but I have never been there and I really liked it. The place is decorated with classic cars and motorcycles and the food was good also. I was beat when we got back to the motel that night and crashed pretty quickly, in fact I crashed quickly every night this trip. I guess not sleeping well every night takes its toll.

  • Tuesday was when the real interesting part of the trip began. We drove about an hour out to the mine sites (there are several in the general vicinity of Charleston). On Tuesday we spent the day touring an active surface mine and also touring the reclamation areas where they are replanting and recovering old surface mines. It was interesting to see how the process is done. In a modern surface mine the vegetation on the mountain is basically scraped off and usually burned. This is pretty amazing considering the amount of forest being removed. Once the ground is cleared the the surface soil is removed as well exposing the bedrock. then they drill down into the bedrock until they are just above the coal and blast off the overburden so they can scrape out the coal. I saw places where they were cutting out a seam of coal only about 6-8 inches thick. The precision they used was pretty impressive. At one place we visited near the active blasting face we drove up on a field of coal that had been uncovered a couple of days earlier, and it looked like a shiny black asphalt parking lot. Unfortunately the day we were there they weren't blasting (who doesn't like explosions). I did get to see where they were blasting next and how they cleared all the rock out. The bulldozers they use are enormous and one of the tires was much taller than I am. (See pics below)
  • Wednesday was our underground day. All I can say is I have increased respect for those guys that work down there every day. I was blowing black junk out of my nose for hours after we came up. The trip down on the elevator was kind of surreal. It was very clean and we could have been in an office building if they piped in "Muzak". Once the doors open though it was like an alien landscape. Every FPS (First Person Shooter) game I have ever played came flooding back. The mine itself was really cool. My favorite thing were the fossils everywhere on the walls in the ceiling and underfoot I could have spent all day picking through the rock looking for them (I did manage to bring a bag full home). The mining operation itself was very impressive. We went out to a machine called a long wall miner that basically has two huge grinding balls of death that run back and forth along a 1000ft "long wall" taking off 3ft deep by 6ft high or so of coal at time. the coal fell on a conveyor belt that ran it out to the opening to be taken to the surface. I tried to get a pic inside but the coal dust made it tough.

Overall this was a very cool trip I learned a lot and got to see some stuff and meet some very cool people. I would like to go back again sometime and explore even more. Below are some pics of the trip.

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