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County's economic base has always ridden the 'waves'

Carbon County coal production in thousands of tons for selected years since 1974. Source: Utah Geologic Survey data.

Sun Advocate associate editor

Coal production has had ups and downs over the decades, but Carbon has the lead in Utah output

Carbon County passed the half-billion ton mark in 2011 for all the coal produced here in more than a century of mining. In spite of all that digging, most of the county's recoverable reserves are still buried and unburned.

Also, the latest numbers show that while coal production in Utah has quadrupled over the past 50 years, employment in the mines has dropped. If not for technological advances, coal mines might have to employ close to 9,000 workers today instead of a bit more than 1,700 to produce the same amount of coal.

According to recently updated data from the Utah Geologic Survey, Carbon County produced 505.6 million tons cumulatively since the 1870s. That's a little more than half of the 1.06 billion tons produced by the whole state over the same period.

The UGS information shows 970 million tons of coal are still recoverable in the county. "Recoverable" means that the coal is in seams at least four feet thick and under less than 3,000 feet of cover.

While Carbon County's reserves sound impressive, they are dwarfed by the coal underlying Garfield and Kane counties in the Alton and Kaiparowits fields. UGS esmitates that there are some 11 billion tons buried there.

The data are concerned strictly with geology and physics. The politics and economics of coal mining and coal burning are not part of the statistics.

Nevertheless, there are some striking things that come out of those rows and columns of numbers.

For starters, there are far fewer miners producing far more coal than was the case 30 and 50 years ago. Back in 1961 there were 50 active coal mines in Utah employing 2,200 miners. They produced a little more than 5 million tons.

By 1981, 28 mines and 4,166 miners dug 13.8 million tons. By 2001 - boom! - 13 mines in Utah produced 27 million tons but employed only 1,565 miners.

That's about twice as much coal with less than half the number of coal miners as 20 years earlier.

In 2011, production had declined to just over 20 million tons, while employment was at 1,747. The number of active mines statewide was down to nine. With 1961 technologies, it would have taken about 8,800 miners to produce 20 million tons, and far more than that to dig out the 27 million of 2001.

Looking at the production chart for Carbon County over the past half century is a bit like looking at a roller coaster: the ups and downs are striking. In 1961, county mines produced 3.9 million tons. A year later, production was at 3.1 million tons, down about one fifth.

After the OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970s, production again surged from 2.7 million tons in 1974 to 8.3 million in 1982. Here are some more swings:

1989, 8.9 million tons; 1993, 2.6 million;

1998, 7.2 million; 2000; 4.6 million;

2008, 11.5 million; 2011, 9.3 million.

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