America’s coal states--Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the like--may have been surprised to see California pop up on the federal list of coal-producing states.
But the major producers needn’t worry about competition: There’s hardly any coal mined in California and it is hardly coal anyway--it is lignite, produced mostly for its natural vegetable wax content rather than fuel value.
Only one mining company has been active in recent years, although another is getting ready for production.
California lignite was first mined in 1861 near Mt. Diablo, east of San Francisco. It fueled much of the rapid Gold Rush growth of the San Francisco Bay Area until yielding to better fuels around the turn of the century.
The next significant production resumed about 1948 near the town of Ione, about 100 miles east of San Francisco, by American Lignite Products Co., which uses it to make montan wax, used in shoe polish, carbon paper, candles and makeup.
The mining of lignite for its wax does not have to be reported to the federal government. But mining it as a fuel does. So here’s how the federal government got into the picture, and California got on its list:
After nearly 40 years of mining--recently about 50,000 tons a year--American Lignite had a stockpile of waxless lignite covering 20 acres to a depth of 30 feet. Despite its low ranking on the scale of combustible mineral solids, the million-ton pile still represented a considerable mass of BTUs. So the company decided to build a steam plant and burn the lignite to produce electricity.
The $38-million plant went on line in 1987 and, presto, California re-emerged as a coal-producing state.
In the words of the general manager of American Lignite, Patrick J. Volkar, “The federal people now construe that as coal mining.”
American Lignite, through its sister company Ione Energy, produces about 17 megawatts, with two megawatts used to lower costs in the wax operation to stay competitive with the world’s only other montan wax producer in East Germany.
The other 15 megawatts go to the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which is required to buy them under federal legislation adopted during the fuel crises of the 1970s.
A firm that neighbors American Lignite, the Carbondale Mining Co., is getting ready to mine lignite from the same formation as American Lignite, to generate electricity at a plant on the site. Consulting geologist and manager David Sanders says 416,000 tons a year are projected to fire the 50-megawatt plant. The company is negotiating to sell the power directly to municipalities.
At both companies, the type of mining is open-pit. But California’s early lignite producers had to tunnel for it. One of their mines near Mt. Diablo has been converted into an underground museum.
Ironically, Mt. Diablo was on the lips of the citizens of the town of Benicia in 1848 when Charles Bennett of Sacramento stopped there while traveling to Monterey to secure for John Sutter the grant of land on which gold had just been discovered in Coloma.
California Geology magazine said in a 1980 article that Bennett, a Sutter associate, “found the people of the town excited about a coal discovery near Mt. Diablo.”
It was disillusioned gold seekers who finally in 1861 began mining the Mt. Diablo lignite, which is in the Domengine Formation of the middle Eocene Epoch of 40 million to 52 million years ago--similar to the Ione Formation. Both formed in river deltas and swamps during a warm, moist climate. Both also contain quartz sand and clays.
While coal or lignite of some kind has been found in 47 of California’s 58 counties, significant quantities have been mined only at Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County, Corral Hollow in nearby Alameda County, Stone Canyon in Monterey County, and Alberhill in Riverside County, as well as Ione in Amador County.
The early Mt. Diablo lignite had to compete with imports of high-grade coal from Pennsylvania, Britain, Australia and Chile. But industry was growing fast. In 30 years from the early 1860s to the early 1890s, the demand grew 19-fold on only a four-fold growth in population.
The largest operators at Mt. Diablo were the Pittsburg Co. and the Black Diamond Co. Black Diamond reportedly employed 315 men in 1870, the area’s peak year, including 110 coal cutters and miners--mostly Welsh, Irish, Italian and Pennsylvanians.