From there, small piles are whisked on plastic-enclosed conveyors to towering silver silos, where coal is briefly stored until it's plopped onto open-car freight trains crawling at about 1.5 miles per hour. About 20 trains a day roll in on two lines, each toting away about 12,000 tons of coal.
After years of minimal capital outlays, Peabody recently spent about $200 million to ratchet up production. Expenditures include a larger dragline, a 3.5-mile-long conveyor to minimize fuel-hogging truck trips, and a new train-loading facility that blends various grades of coal from different silos, providing utilities with more customized mixes.
In a room lined with PCs and video screens, new software tells dispatchers precisely where trucks are so they can be routed efficiently, and warns of low tire pressure or worn brakes. Workers seem unfazed by coal's role in the global-warming debate.
"We're mining something that's helping the whole country," says supervisor Lyle Ramsey, 60, as he surveys a pit. "It bothers me that people don't understand what's going on."