Thursday, September 24, 2015


I’m old enough to remember coal.

I spent  my first seven years living in a flat in my grandmother’s decker. Our heat came from coal. In the basement, each of the three flats in Nanny’s house had a furnace and a coal bin.

I remember the coal being delivered by truck by Claflin and Sumner, the chutes poked in through the windows in the cellar, the sound of the coal shuttling down the chute.

I remember my father shoveling coal into our furnace, and into Nanny’s. (I certainly don’t remember my Uncle Charlie, who lived with Nanny, ever putting his shoulder in to this effort. Building up a sweat was not exactly Charlie’s style.)

I remember picking small pieces out of the coal bin to use on snowmen: two for the eyes, three to five for the mouth. Much better than using stones!

Because I’ve held pieces of coal in my very own hand, I actually know just what “black as coal” means.

More recently – but already 25 years ago (sigh!) – I traveled to Berlin during the winter, at a time when East Berlin was powered by dirty, smelly, sulfur-ish coal.

So, yes, I remember coal. But I also know that coal is a big polluter – all those scrubbers aside – and the world will be a better place once it’s phased out.

The US coal industry is dealing with its worst market slump in decades because of a global supply glut, escalating competition from cheap natural gas and tighter regulations as policy makers try to wean the power market off of fossil. (Source: Boston Globe)

Of course, I do feel bad about the displaced miners and all those desperately poor communities where coal has been king, but coal mining has always been a dangerous, lousy job, and a destroyer of the local environment. So in the long run, we’ll be better off without it. And it’s not just environmentally concerns and competition that are hurting the coal industry. Mines are playing out. And they’re not making a lot more coal in any hurry.

But there is a flicker of coal-fueled light.

The growing appetite for coal-fired pizza is creating new demand for anthracite coal -- it’s the hardest kind and burns the hottest. “That market just kind of snuck up on us,” Greg Driscoll, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania producer Blaschak Coal Corp., said in an interview. “It’s sort of in the face of everything that is going on.”

I actually don’t know whether I’ve ever had coal-fired pizza. From Google, it doesn’t look like there’s a ton around the Boston area, although it looks like there’s more coming. (Frank Pepe’s of New Haven is expanding this-a-way.) The flavor is supposed to be good – carcinogenically, no doubt. In any case, I’d be happy to give it a try.

Anthracite won’t be getting back to its glory days any time soon. Those days would be when World War One was ending, and 100 million tons were mined. The forecast is that anthracite will average 5 to 10 million tons in the next couple of years.

I guess this is good news and bad news.

Good news if you’re a Pennsylvania miner, where anthracite comes from. Good news if you like coal-fired pizza. Bad news if there’s a mining disaster, which does tend to happen with fair regularity. Bad news, no doubt, for the environment (although I don’t imagine the coal-fired pizza ovens give off a lot of pollution).

Me? I’ll give it a try it it opens nearby.

But pretty interesting that such a dying, old-school industry would get a bit of a lease of life from a food fad.

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