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Even In 2019, A Faithful Few Still Heat Their Homes With Coal: NPR



John Ord of Susquehanna, Pa., Loads 40-pound bags of anthracite coal into his car. He is among the fewer than 130,000 households left in the United States that burn their homes to homes.
                
                
                    
                    Jeff Brady / NPR
                    
                

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John Ord of Susquehanna, Pa., Loads 40-pound bags of anthracite coal into his car. He is among the fewer than 130,000 households left in the United States that burn their homes to homes

Jeff Brady / NPR
            
        

Every few weeks, John Ord does something unusual for most people living in 2019 – he stops at a local hardware store in rural northeastern Pennsylvania to buy coal to heat his home.

He recently spent about $ 56 to buy 400 pounds of coal. That will keep his 2,400-square-foot house to to 70 to 72 degrees for a couple of weeks.

"This is the whole glamorous part, right here," says Ord, as he loads 40-pound bags of Pennsylvania anthracite coal into the back of his white station wagon.

When he gets home, Ord is the coal down to his basement, where he rips open a bag, lifts the chest high and loads it into a hopper on the back of his coal-burning stove.

It's a lot more work than most Americans with gas or electric heat go through to keep their homes warm. They can just set a thermostat and forget it. But Ord says this is actually less than the wood stove he replaced last fall.

Word loads a hopper on the back of his coal-burning stove. He says 400 pounds of coal will keep his 2,400-square-foot house between 70 and 72 degrees for a couple of weeks in the winter.
                
                
                    
                    Jeff Brady / NPR
                    
                

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Word loads a hopper on the back of his coal-burning stove. He says 400 pounds of coal will keep his 2,400-square-foot house between 70 and 72 degrees for a couple of weeks in the winter.

Jeff Brady / NPR
            
        

"Between cutting it [wood]stacking it, letting it season, moving it into the space where you need to access it and then loading the stove," Ord says, wood requires a lot more action. coal-burning stove burns 24 hours a day when it's cold. He feels the constant heat it gives off and says it is cheaper than his other options – oil and electric burn bituminous coal, northeastern Pennsylvania is very proud of its anthracite coal, which is shinier and harder than you might expect. Words says it burns cleaner too.

Anthracite coal is mined in northeastern Pennsylvania. About 63,000 households in the state burn coal for heat.
                
                
                    
                    Jeff Brady / NPR
                    
                

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Anthracite coal is mined in northeastern Pennsylvania. About 63,000 households in the state burn coal for heat.

Jeff Brady / NPR
            
        

To demonstrate this, he goes outside and points to a white chimney. "No smoke at all. There's no smell to it," says Ord.

But burning anthracite coal does emit more carbon dioxide per unit than just about any other fuel, according to the Energy Information Administration. This makes it a contributor to climate change.

Anthracite backers point out that it has less than sulfur, but environmentalists say cleaner does not mean clean.

"It's still quite a bit of dangerous sulfur dioxide, as well as heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury," says Tom Schuster with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. He says anyone concerned about their contribution to climate change should avoid burning coal for heat.

Those in the anthracite coal business counter that the industry is so small that it is not a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. for to look at the major CO2 producers in the world, it's not us, "says Matt Atkinson, co-owner of Leisure Line Stove Company in Berwick, Pa. "And if we quadrupled our current sales, it wouldn't be a problem."

Seeking a new generation of customers

There was a time when coal was king in the home-heating business. In 1940, more than half or U.S. homes burned coal, according to the Census Bureau.

Listen to a 1953 Blue Coal radio advertisement here:

( Credit: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission / Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum

After decades of decline, fewer than 130,000 households use coal for heat today. Half of them are in Pennsylvania, and the state's coal industry wants to boost that. It has a plan to attract more customers.

Atkinson is among those leading the campaign. He bought Leisure Line with a business partner in 2009 and says he got into the coal business after experiencing a friend's stove.

Matt Atkinson, co-owner of Leisure Line Stove Company, in the firm's Berwick, Pa., Factory. His company hopes to encourage more people to switch their homes to anthracite coal to heat.
                
                
                    
                    Jeff Brady / NPR
                    
                

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Matt Atkinson, co-owner of Leisure Line Stove Company, in the firm's Berwick, Pa., Factory. His company hopes to encourage more people to switch to their homes anthracite coal to heat

Jeff Brady / NPR
            
        

"When I opened the door, I felt this warmth that I had never felt before. … And I was hooked instantly," says Atkinson. Talk to coal-heat advocates in Pennsylvania, and you'll hear this repeatedly – there's no heat as intense as coal heat.

It's clear that many people in northeastern Pennsylvania, the heart of anthracite coal country, have an emotional attachment to this fossil fuel.

"You have a lot of great-grandfathers were miners. Their grandfathers were miners. It's a family of mining," says Andrew Meyers, sales manager for Blaschak Coal Corp. His company is also leading the campaign to attract new customers.

"It's mostly about growing market share within the home-heating industry," says Atkinson. He hopes to attract a new generation of customers with the message that they can save money on their home if they choose coal. Her family's business, F.M. Brown's Sons has sold coal for nearly a century.
                
                
                    
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Kelly Brown stands in front of a pile of coal. Her family's business, F.M. Brown's Sons, has sold coal for nearly a century.

Jeff Brady / NPR
            
        

In Reading, Pa., Kelly Brown welcomes the campaign. Her family's business, F.M. Brown's Sons has sold coal for nearly a century and is one of the few to survive the industry's decline.

"In this general area, there were probably about 50 coal companies. Slowly, one by one, they started closing up," Brown says. Now the company is the only one left in Berks County.

She says the industry has improved its environmental record over the years. Pennsylvania was the first state to pass and act abandoned-mine reclamation, and today coal companies like to tout their work in this area.

Given Pennsylvania's abundant coal reserves and a bigger focus on improving coal's environmental record, Brown hopes the industry will stage a comeback. "I might not see it in my lifetime, but I think things will turn around," she says.

So far the trend is not moving in Brown's favor. Even in Pennsylvania, the number of households using coal for heat continues to fall steadily.


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