Coal

Massive Coal from Sparwood B.C.

Coal is a kind of sedimentary rock made almost entirely of carbon, formed as decaying plants are buried and gradually transformed to rock over time. Variable amounts of other elements, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur, are also present in coal. At first, the decaying organic matter forms peat, then lignite and eventually, after millions of years, coal. If heating and compaction continue, or the coal is subjected to high temperatures and pressures, anthracite will ultimately form. Coal is usually found as long thin beds, called seams, which are either mined underground or in large open pits.

This sample is from the Elk Valley in southeastern BC, an area known for its extensive coal mining history. Elk Valley coal is very pure, which means it has a high carbon content and burns at a high temperature. This “coking coal”, also known as metallurgical coal or steelmaking coal, is used to smelt iron and other metals to make high quality steel.

In the Elk Valley, coal is mainly mined from open pits. Once mined, the coal is cleaned and dried before being stored and eventually transported by rail to Vancouver for shipping all over the world.

Coal mining began in the Elk Valley in the late 1800s, when William Fernie opened the first coal mine in 1897. Initially, he brought miners in from across the country in Cape Breton, another one of Canada’s major coal mining areas. Coal had been reported as early as the 1840s, first by Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, a Belgian Jesuit missionary who worked with the K’tunaxa First Nation along the Elk River. Later, in 1873, explorer Michael Phillips travelled through the region and sent samples of coal back east to one of Canada’s most famous geologists, George M. Dawson, who visited the area soon after. By the early 1900s, several mines were open and small towns were being settled and expanded.

The main communities in the area today are Fernie, Elkford and Sparwood. But many more towns have come and gone since the coal mines first opened. Sparwood, where this sample was collected near, was once just a small railroad stop. A small community grew there in the early 1900s, at the same time that the nearby villages of Michel and Natal were also established. All three communities flourished, but because they were so close to the coal mines, Michel and Natal were often affected by coal dust. In 1966, the government-funded Urban Renewal and Land Assembly program relocated people from the two villages to Sparwood. Very little remains of the other villages, which were largely torn down, but Sparwood remains a thriving mining town today.

This sample comes from the Greenhills mine. We know this because the sample was donated by Kaiser Resources Ltd, who operated the mine in the 1960s and 70s. At the time a large portion of the coal was sold to Japan for the steelmaking industry there. In the early 1980s, Kaiser became Westar Mining, but that company went bankrupt in 1991. Since the early 1990s, Teck Resources Ltd has acquired several major Elk Valley mines that are still active today: Greenhills, Fording River, Elkview, Coal Mountain and Line Creek. In 2016, the mines produced a total of around 27.6 million tonnes of steelmaking coal, supplying countries around the world.

Specimen Information

Store: Association for Mineral Exploration (AME)

Collection: 

Accession #: 33

Primary Mineral: Coal

Secondary Mineral: 

Site Locality: 

Location: Sparwood, British Columbia

Special Features: n/a

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