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Texas Lignite Belt so , Near-surface lignite Deep-basin lignite Operating mines Announced mines r A Texas has nearly 12 billion tons of lignite within 200 feet of the surface and another 100 billion tons buried at depths ranging down to 5,000 feet. The deposits lie beneath large portions of the piney woods in East Texas, including parts of the Angelina, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Sabine national forests and touching on the Big Thicket area. The coal beds extend through Central Texas, underlying pastures, crop lands, and partially wooded areas in the post oak belt as well as fertile agricultural regions of the blackland prairie. Central Texas’ unique lost pines area in and around Bastrop State Park sits atop a principal deposit. Finally, the lignite belt stretches through crop lands, grazing regions, and brushy areas of the South Texas plain. much money on their farmland suddenly had a lot of money to spend from leases and royalties when a lignite mine and two power plants opened nearby. New people moved to town, and a great deal of new construction took place. Along with the boom, however, came rising prices and increased taxes. Many of the long-time residents, who are not technically qualified for the high-paying jobs at the power plants, have seen their standard of living fall. A lot of them don’t like the effects of rapid population growth, eitherall the trailer parks and mobile homes that have appeared and the big jump in the crime rate. Rapid development does create jobs, but the strip-mining industry brings fewer than other big industries. Most jobs open up while the power plant is being built, then taper off dramatically. At its peak, construction of a 1,000megawatt plant will employ about 1,000 workers, but when operations begin, only about 250 people are needed in the mine and another 150 in the power plant. Total 1985 employment in Texas lignite mines and power plants is expected to be no more than 6,090. Probably the main selling point for lignite development is the promise of lowcost energy. The price of the Texas fuel is difficult to determine because it’s not sold on the open market, but current estimates range from 70 cents to $1 per million Btu’sabout half the cost of natural gas. Fuel costs, however, are only one component of the cost of electricity. A lignite plant costs about four times as much to build as a gasor oil-burning plant, and pollution control equipment can add another 15 to 20 percent. And regardless of the real costs, lignite producers can charge as much as the energy market will beara market controlled by the same oil and gas companies who are buying up the lignite reserves. For most Texans, the use of lignite will not result in cheap electricity. Getting at it There are lots of exotic ideas for mining lignite without disturbing the overlying land, but none are economical or technically feasible at presentthough a Texas Utilities subsidiary is trying to gasify lignite in the ground \(in situ gasifiwith no surface damage at a new mine site near Tennessee Colony in Anderson County. For the near future, when Texans talk about lignite extraction, they’ll be talking about strip mines. The mining industry likes strip mining. For one thing, labor costs are lower than in underground mining because of the extensive use of heavy machinery, and each worker produces more coal. \(Average production for underground coalminers is 11 tons a day; for a strip miner, 40 tons. At Texas strip mines, productivity is even higherworkers average to recover from 80 to 90 percent of the coal in a strip mine, as opposed to 40 to 50 percent in an underground mine. Strip mining in Texas is especially economical because the lignite is covered by flat and rolling land with loosely packed earth, rock and sand that can be easily removed. The process is simple enough. First, a dragline picks up a row of “overburden,” which is the industry’s euphemism for topsoil, trees, crops, flowers and anything else that’s on top of the coal. The overburden is dumped in a pile alongside the ditch being dug, and the lignite is then removed by power shovels or draglines. Next, another strip is cut parallel to the first. The overburden taken from each cut is shoveled into the hole left by the previous one. A typical cut is 120 feet wide, from 9,500 to 13,500 feet long, and from 50 to 100 feet deep. The machines that do this work are the largest mobile land machines on earth: gigantic power shovels with their 70to 90-cubic-yard buckets may be as tall as 20-story buildings. If all 14 of the mines scheduled to be operable by 1985 open according to plan, the industry will be mining a minimum of 7,000 acres of Texas soil each year, or THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9