By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
At the dawn of the 20th century, Mercer County was one of the most prolific coal mining counties in West Virginia. During the 20-year period from 1884 when Mill Creek Coal & Coke in Coopers, and Caswell Creek Coal & Coke Co., opened its mine in Freeman until 1904 when Ennis Coal Co., opened its mine at Hiawatha, 19 large mining operations as well as an additional nine small mines were producing coal in Mercer County.
The available coal in Mercer County didn’t come close to the extent of the coal reserves in neighboring McDowell County or even the coal in Tazewell County, Va., but coal was plentiful in Mercer County. The late Kyle McCormick, former director of the West Virginia department of Archives and History wrote in his history of Mercer County that from 1884 until Jan. 1, 1957, more than 178 million tons of coal had been mined in Mercer County. In 1942 alone — Mercer County’s most prolific coal production year — the county’s mines produced almost 3.5 million tons with 3,510 coal miners working in county mines.
There is still some coal produced in Mercer County, but nowhere near the amount that was mined in Mercer during the first year of World War II. Today, most of the coal mined in the region is metallurgical coal used in making steel, and the lion’s share of that production is sold to overseas markets where it commands a premium price. In recent years, coal has become increasingly more difficult for local businesses to purchase.
“When it comes to getting coal, we can’t get any bidders,” Greg Prudich, president of the Mercer County Board of Education said. “It used to be that when we asked for bids to supply coal, we had several bidders, but not any more.”
With only three schools that still use coal to heat the buildings, the contract to supply coal to the school system isn’t a big one. Prudich said the annual costs for coal is in the $60,000 to $80,000 range, but that won’t last much longer. The school system is taking advantage of a program through the West Virginia Department of Education that will allow them to replace the aging heating systems in three schools and convert them to gas.
“There are not many coal-fired systems remaining in the state,” Prudich said. “The $766,000 grant we have received allows us to upgrade 30-year-old heating systems at Montcalm High School and Lashmeet-Matoaka School as well as an even older system at Spanishburg School,” he said. “There is no local expenditure involved. We were going to have to replace the three heating systems soon, but we were going to have to cover the cost out of general revenues.”
Prudich said that the project has been approved, but bids have not been let at this point. He said that the new systems could be installed as early as the summer of 2013.
He said that where natural gas is available, the cost savings is greater than when the system has to use propane. However, the savings the school will see in maintenance costs on new equipment as well as the work to stoke coal fires in the furnaces will also represent a savings to the county.
“It has nothing to do with coal,” Prudich said. Instead, the board took action to upgrade heating systems at no cost to the county.
— Contact Bill Archer at email@example.com