Belt line at Deep Mine 41, Dickenson County
Photo credit: Tarah Kesterson
Virginia’s coal miners reported production of 12.0 million short tons (MMSt) of bituminous coal in 20191, down about 7.7 percent from the production reported in 2018. Underground mining accounted for about 71 percent of Virginia’s coal output. Virginia's production ranked fourteenth highest in the nation of the twenty-four coal-producing states, with a 1.7 percent share of the national total (705 MMSt).
Coal is defined as "a readily combustible rock containing more than 50% by weight and more than 70% by volume of carbonaceous material including inherent moisture, formed from compaction and induration of variously altered plant remains similar to those in peat. Differences in the kinds of plant materials (type), in degree of metamorphism (rank), and in the range of impurity (grade) are characteristic of coal and are used in classification…” (Bates and Jackson, 1987). With time, coupled with the effects of increasing depth of burial beneath deposits of overlying geologic strata, the plant material undergoes a series of complex chemical reactions that transforms it first into peat, then brown coal or lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and finally into anthracite coal.
Locations of coal-producing regions in Virginia.
The coal mined in the Southwest Virginia Coalfield is well suited for a variety of primary uses including electricity generation (steam coal), manufacturing coke (metallurgical coal), and supplying other industrial (non-coke), commercial and institutional users. Coal is delivered mainly by rail and truck to major electrical utility generating plants and steel-manufacturing facilities located in the Eastern and Midwestern United States. Coal is also transported by rail to Hampton Roads, Virginia, the largest coal export terminal in the United States, where it is shipped to international consumers.
Coal deposits occur in three main regions in Virginia: the Southwest Virginia Coalfield, Valley Coalfields, and the Eastern Coalfields. In the Eastern Coalfields, high-volatile bituminous coal and natural coke occur in Triassic-age (about 200 to 250 million years old) sedimentary strata within several of the small Mesozoic basins located in central Virginia (Goodwin and others, 1986; Wilkes, 1988). The Valley Coalfields include eleven distinct areas in the Valley and Ridge geologic province containing coals that range from medium-volatile bituminous to semi-anthracite in rank (Brown and others, 1952; Campbell and others, 1925). These coal deposits are hosted by sedimentary rocks of Early Mississippian age (about 323 to 360 million years old). In the far southwestern region of the state, the Southwest Virginia Coalfield contains extensive deposits of low- to medium-volatile bituminous coal hosted by Pennsylvanian-age (about 299 to 323 million years old) sedimentary rocks (Nolde, 1994).
1Coal production reported in annual tonnage reports to DMME differs from the production figures reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). For 2019, the EIA preliminary estimate of Virginia's production was 12.3 million short tons.
Year of first production in Virginia: 1748
Location of first production: Richmond area
Number of operations producing coal in Virginia: 152
Counties in Virginia where coal is currently produced: Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Lee, Tazewell, Wise
Number of companies: 65
Quantity produced in 2019: 12.0 million short tons
Estimated market value: $1.2 billion
Total cumulative production: 2.7 billion short tons
Coal production and value in Virginia
Coal production in Virginia has fallen from the peak output reported in 1990 (46.6 MMSt) as the more accessible coal deposits have been mined out. Despite the decline in annual output, the value of Virginia’s coal continued to increase up until 2011 as global demand (and prices) for higher quality metallurgical coal and steam coal increased. Following the global economic downturn known in the U.S. as the Great Recession (late-2007 to 2009), the export price of coking coal peaked at just over $200 per ton reflecting increased demand from the steel manufacturing industry mainly in Asia. As a result, the market value of Virginia’s coal shot up to just over $3 billion in 2011. After 2011, worldwide coal prices retreated and the annual value of Virginia’s coal output in 2015 dropped below $1 billion for the first time since 2004. Metallurgical coal prices saw a renewed boost starting in 2017, and throughout 2019 the average price was about $133 per short ton.
The discovery of coal in Colonial Virginia was first reported by Colonel William Byrd in 1701, who noted coal occurrences on the banks of the James River near the town of Manakin (Brown and others, 1952). Coal was likely being used for domestic purposes even earlier than that by Huguenot settlers (Wilkes, 1988). The earliest records of commercial coal mining in the state date to 1748, when mines in the Richmond basin began supplying coal for local needs and expanding markets along the Atlantic coast (Brown and others, 1952). From 1748 to 1904, coal was mined nearly continuously in the Eastern Coalfields mainly from the Richmond basin, with total production estimated to be over 8 million tons (Brown and others, 1952). Although coal mining was reported in the Taylorsville, Farmville, and Briery Creek Mesozoic basins, no production records are available.
The first records of coal discovery in the Valley Coalfields date to the mid-1700s, and small-scale coal mining was reported as early as 1782 in Montgomery and Pulaski counties (Brown and others, 1952). Commercial coal production was first recorded in Montgomery County in 1840 from mines active in the Brushy Mountain and Price Mountain fields, and coal from this area may have provided fuel for the Confederate ironclad Merrimac in 1862 (Whisonant, 2000). The Valley coal beds occur mainly in the Mississippian-age Price Formation in small deposits located in Bland, Botetourt, Montgomery, Pulaski, Roanoke, Smyth, and Wythe counties. Another small coalfield extends from northern Augusta County into southern Rockingham County. The coals are mainly of semi-anthracite rank characterized by fixed-carbon and volatile matter contents that are intermediate between bituminous and anthracite coal (Campbell and others, 1925). No significant coal mining was recorded after the mid-1950s, and the total cumulative production from the Valley Coalfields is estimated to be just over 6 million tons (Brown and others, 1952).
Since the 1950s, virtually all of Virginia’s coal production has come from the Southwest Virginia Coalfield, an area of about 1,550 square miles that encompasses all of Buchanan and Dickenson counties, most of Wise County, and portions of Lee, Russell, Scott, and Tazewell counties. The coalfield is part of the extensive Appalachian coal basin, which extends from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Over 70 individually named coal beds are recognized in the Southwest Virginia Coalfield within a stratigraphic sequence of Early to Middle Pennsylvanian rocks that ranges in thickness from about 800 feet in Tazewell County to 5,150 feet in Lee and Wise counties (Nolde, 1994). The Division of Geology and Mineral Resources (DGMR) has mapped five major coal-bearing geologic formations within this sequence of rocks including from youngest to oldest the Harlan, Wise, Norton, Lee, and Pocahontas Formations (Nolde, 1994). The coal beds vary in thickness from less than 1 foot to about 11 feet (Brown and others, 1952). The bituminous coal commercially mined in the Southwest Virginia Coalfield is regarded as high quality coal containing less than 1 percent sulfur, less than 10 percent ash, and high heat content ranging from about 13,000 Btu/lb up to nearly 15,000 Btu/lb (Brown and others, 1952). Coal sample analyses show that the average fixed carbon content in the Pocahontas No. 3 coal bed is about 71 percent and volatile matter content averages about 19 percent (Wilkes and others, 1992). The Pocahontas No. 3 coal bed has been by far the most significant producer in recent years, followed by the Jawbone and Lower Banner coal beds.
ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) Standard D388-12, 2012, Standard classification of coals by rank: ASTM International, West Conshohocken, PA, DOI 10.1520/D0388-12
Bartholomew, M.J., and Brown, K.L., 1992, The Valley Coalfield (Mississippian Age) in Montgomery and Pulaski Counties, Virginia: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 124, 33 p.
Bates, R.L., and Jackson, J.A., eds., 1987, Glossary of Geology: The American Geological Institute, Alexandria, VA, 3rd ed.
Brown, A., Berryhill, H. L., Jr., Taylor, D. A., and Trumbull, J. V. A., 1952, Coal resources of Virginia: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 171, 57 p.
Campbell, M.R., and others, 1925, The valley coal fields of Virginia: Virginia Geological Survey Bulletin 25, 322 p.
Gilmer, A.K., Enomoto, C.B., Lovett, J.A., and Spears, D.B., 2005, Mineral and fossil fuel production in Virginia (1999-2003): Virginia Division of Mineral Resource Open File Report 05-04, 77 p.
Goodwin, B.K., Ramsey, K.W., and Wilkes, G.P., 1986, Guidebook to the geology of the Richmond, Farmville, Briery Creek and Roanoke Creek basins, Virginia: 18th Annual Meeting of the Virginia Geological Field Conference, October 18-18, 1986, 75 p.
Le Van, D.C., 1990, Energy resources and facilities in Virginia: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 100, map, scale 1:500,000.
Lovett, J.A., and Hostettler, K.A., 2016, Coal, in Bailey, C.M., Sherwood, W.C., Eaton, L.S., and Powars, D.S., (eds.), The Geology of Virginia: Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication 18, p. 443-461.
Nolde, J.E., 1994, Devonian to Pennsylvanian stratigraphy and coal beds of the Appalachian Plateaus province, in Geology and mineral resources of the Southwest Virginia Coalfield: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 131, p. 1-85.
Nolde, J.E., Whitlock, W.W., Lovett, J.A., Henika, W.S., 1994, Geology and mineral resources of the Southwest Virginia Coalfield: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 131, CD-ROM containing PDF files of original, 145 p., six plates showing stratigraphic sections (digital reprint 2005).
Whisonant, R.C., 2000, Geology and history of the Confederate coal mines in Montgomery County, Virginia: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Virginia Minerals, v. 46, no. 1, 8 p.
Wilkes, G.P., 1988, Mining history of the Richmond coalfield of Virginia: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 85, 51 p.
Wilkes, G.P., Bragg, L. J., Hostettler, K.K., Oman, C.L., and Coleman, S.L., 1992, Coal sample analyses from the southwest Virginia coalfield: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 122, 431 p.
Other Useful Links:
Lovett, J.A., and Hostettler, K.K., 2008, Virginia coal quality database: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Open File Report 08-04