Blaschak Coal Corporation – Healing the Landscape
Our mental image of a coal mine is rarely a pastoral one, whether we’re imagining large open-pit operations or networks of dark underground tunnels, but Blaschak Coal Corporation is a company that is making a positive, concrete difference to the natural environment. We learn how Blaschak Coal Corporation is proving a boon to the Pennsylvania countryside.
Blaschak Coal Corporation is an anthracite mining company that has been trading for 84 years since it was founded by three brothers in 1937. That family continued to run the company until 2009 when they exited the business and sold the company to private equity firm Milestone Partners.
This is when Greg Driscoll joined the company as Chief Executive.
“Blaschak has had a long history of maintaining a consistent quality of product with distinct attention to our consumers,” Driscoll tells us. “Anthracite, as mined, varies quite a bit as you move from east to west. The quality can change, so what we do is bring in several sources and blend them to create a consistently superior quality of the product so that our customers are always getting the same thing.”
Today, with 145 employees, Blaschak produces 350 to 400,000 tons a year of anthracite products. These products are highly sought after by everyone from the steel industry to the residential heating market, even to artisanal pizza restaurants with coal-fired ovens.
“We pay a lot of attention to our customers, through dealers, intermediaries and a very high-touch relationship,” Driscoll says. “We are in constant communication, providing them with not only the product but value-added services necessary to maintain strong customer relationships.”
The Best of What’s Left
Anthracite is not an easy mining sector to work in, however. Pennsylvania has been mined for anthracite since the 18th century, but there are still substantial reserves to be mined.
“We’re essentially getting ‘What’s left,” Driscoll points out.
At the same time, the anthracite that is left exists in some very complex geological structures. Many of Blaschak’s anthracite pitches are very steep, with surfaces that are less flat than vertical. There are often concerns around water and other geologic conditions.
There are also regulatory challenges, but Blaschak is able to navigate these thanks to the very beneficial work their projects carry out.
“I always say If I am going to mine in the US, I’d rather mine anthracite in Pennsylvania because the regulators recognise we’re solving several environmental challenges,” Blaschak says. “We have acid mine discharges, the stability of the ground which can cause sinkholes and other issues, and then there are sites where previous mining operations have left eyesores.”
The key is that Blaschak mines under “reclamation and remining” permits.
“The regulator gives us the privilege of reclaiming the land and taking anthracite as we go. We’re reclaiming land constantly as we move,” Driscoll says. “When we’re done, we leave behind something much better than what we found in terms of stability, filtration of surface water, trees, and grass.”
Ten years after Blaschak leaves a site you will have trouble telling anything had happened there.
“The uniqueness of Pennsylvania anthracite mining is in the previous mining and the conditions left behind,” Driscoll says. “We have this legacy of underground workings that were not reclaimed and surface mines left abandoned. Anthracite mining in Pennsylvania today is producing an important product but it is also generating environmental improvement. We’re making improvements in terms of surface subsidence and the restoration of places to previous conditions. Without mining that will cease. Mining companies are investing in and paying for the reclamation of the surface and the underground as they are mining coal. The legacy conditions will continue to exist well into the future. So if we can continue to grow this, we can generate environmental improvements and economic development.”
Of course, Blaschak’s work, taking legacy sites and not only finding their untapped potential but also returning them to their former glory, is an enormous technical task. This means that Blaschak Coal Corporation is a company that is constantly hungry for talent.
“I’ve always been a believer in constantly recruiting, looking for people who will meet needs and fit well in your organisation,” Driscoll says. “Even if you’re not ready to hire, you’re building a list of people who would be great additions to your team. We try to stay ahead of our needs especially with people with key technical and operating qualifications.”
This attitude is one Driscoll extends to the recruitment of the miners themselves.
“These are highly skilled jobs where people are operating multi-million-dollar pieces of equipment,” Driscoll points out. “We’re constantly looking for people out of trade schools and high-character people who have experience with heavy equipment. But the main factor in finding good people is to constantly be looking for them. That’s our primary means of recruitment.”
Across the board, Blaschak maintains and develops its staff’s skills through regular training for supervisory skills, operating skills, and maintaining professional engineering registration. The company also pays excellently by the standards of the industry.
“We offer a very competitive and favourable benefit package that inspires them to want to be there,” says Driscoll. “But the main job of management is to connect with people. We work to understand their minds, the issues they’re facing and how they can be on top of their work. A lot of it is ad hoc, non-structured, but staying ahead of the curve in terms of needs is the primary thing we do.”
Potential for Growth
This is an exciting time for Blaschak Coal Corporation. The company is currently pursuing several new avenues for potential growth.
“In terms of growth, the Pennsylvania anthracite industry tends to be small. Miners in other industries tend to have very large operations producing millions of tons a year, and we’re producing 350,000 tons a year for our markets,” Driscoll admits. “We’d like to see that number double, so we’re pursuing opportunities through acquisitions to grow from a revenue and tonnage basis. We believe there are economies of scale available for that and it will attract investors as well.”
As well as growing the company and its operations, Driscoll is also doing something quite rare, particularly in the coal sector. He’s looking for new markets.
“Anthracite has unique qualities and characteristics,” he says. “It is very hard, has a micro-porous physical structure, and we believe it has applications in activated carbons and we’re working with universities and research organisations to broaden the applications into emerging markets. Activated carbon can help reduce emissions. Graphene is a very strong, light material. So we’re investigating these future markets to grow the applications of the anthracite into markets that are just developing now.”