Editor's note: A version of this story appeared in the July issue of Coal People magazine.

A previously unknown part of the "Buck" coal vein has been discovered at Keystone Anthracite's new strip-mining operation in Zerbe Township.

"It is 145 feet thick in spots, a huge discovery that was not shown on any old maps," said Bobby Burns, president of the Girardville-based company. Some bootleggers had worked the land, he said, but "nobody alive knew it was there."

Burns, who holds degrees in mining engineering and geology, discovered the vein through his analysis of the land and by drilling test holes as he prepared to open his new strip-mining operation over the past few years. They since began to uncover it.

"As the pit opened up, I noticed the vein was going two ways, telling me there was either an anticline or some sort of up-down fault there.

"First test hole we drilled found a solid 80 feet of coal," he said. "I knew we had found something unique."

Millions of tons available

Zerbe Township is one of three sites operated by Keystone. At Zerbe Township, there are 10 million tons of recoverable coal, including 100 million tons underwater. The others are the Packer 5 site at Girardville, with an estimated 7 million tons of recoverable coal, 40 million tons underwater; and Continental Mine near Centralia, with 10 million tons recoverable, 15 million tons underwater.

A new site at Brownsville, near Shenandoah, is estimated to have 7 million tons recoverable, 25 million underwater. Work will begin there in the near future.

The Zerbe Township site, south of Trevorton at the far western end of the Western Middle Anthracite Coal Field, is of special interest to Burns.

The largest deposits of anthracite in the world are in the Mammoth vein, which stretches from Coaldale near Tamaqua to Zerbe Township, with a northern roll into Hazleton. It has been called "the most magnificent coal bed in the world" by geologists.

Thickness of the deposits vary, but range from 25 to 30 feet to 70 to 100 feet. In the Shamokin area, the Mammoth vein is divided and is known as the Twin veins, each 9 to 16 feet thick, divided by 10 to 40 feet of shale and sandstone.

Steel manufacturing use

Beyond the discovery of the unknown part of the Buck Vein, also known as No. 5 Vein, Burns said the coal at the Zerbe Township operation which includes the Buck and Mammoth veins, has 9 percent gas, higher than the typical 3 to 6 percent for anthracite, which is less volatile than bituminous. With that, it is classified as semi-anthracite, he said.

"It is interesting to note that coke used in making steel uses metallurgical grade bituminous coal which has a volatile of 18 to 20 percent," Burns said. "The process of making coke consists of putting the coal in a giant oven and heating it to 2,000 degrees to burn off all the volatile. This is also known as carbonization. Anthracite is a much cheaper replacement to coke because the volatile is so low from natural carbonization from the folding that took place (during shifting of Tectonic plates)."

Coal from the new vein is sent to processors, then on to customers domestic and foreign.

"All nations need steel, especially developing ones, and you need carbon to make steel," Burns said.

Father started business

Burns, then vice president, bought 95 percent of Keystone shares on Jan. 1, 2010, and now serves as president for the operation, which employs 46 people at three active sites, with one new site expected shortly.

His father, Michael "Bobby" Burns, founder and former president, continues to serve as a consultant.

A native of Girardville, the elder Burns returned from a tour with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in the late 1960s with the idea of getting into the business of mining.

"I found and bought this used backhoe for $2,000; that was the start in 1972," he said. "I later started working some Reading Anthracite land with a 2-cubic yard dragline. That started the Burns Coal Co."

A look at the current Keystone Anthracite office building reflects his strong interest in mining history. The building, originally built in 1888 by Girard Estate, was part of a business deal that began when Girard Estate bought the Burns Coal Co. and the Girardville Coal Co. and named Burns general manager of the newly named Girard Coal Co. Mining began with the opening of the Continental Mine near Girardville in 1997, and a new breaker at Lost Creek in 1998 managed by Michael Burns.

In 2006, he was offered the opportunity to purchase his former company from Girard Estate, and the purchase included the historic building, which had been the stable for Army mules for the Armory across the street in downtown Girardville.

An extensive renovation included adding a top floor, removal of a dropped ceiling and exposing the original stained-glass windows. Burns also added old photographs of mines and miners as well as coal sculptures. Historical records were returned for proper storage at Keystone's headquarters.

"The history of anthracite mining is full of stories of men of courage, of vision, men willing to take a chance,"

Burns said.

Bobby Burns attended Cardinal Brennan High School and worked part time with his father running equipment from his teen years through college. He later served an internship where he studied maps and planned mining operations. He was hooked on the industry.

"I found it challenging and interesting. It's always changing and you need to be adaptable," Burns said.

World energy

For the future, Bobby Burns sees an increasing need for high-carbon, non-polluting anthracite.

"The world needs anthracite, and we have lots it," he said.

And while "we won't go back to the days when 150,000 miners worked in the hills of Schuylkill County," Burns said, "we will make a difference in world energy supplies."