The hill is on fire — and other reminders of coal in Black Diamond | KUOW News and Information

The hill is on fire — and other reminders of coal in Black Diamond

Feb 27, 2017

The hill at Palmer Coking Coal Company in Black Diamond is smoldering. 

The hill is about 100-feet tall and covered with blackberries. Once a year, people scramble up it as part of the Tough Mudder athletic event. 

“What’s that? What’s that right there, it looks like smoke?” I asked, putting my hand down to a hole in the ground with steam rising from it. "It's hot!"

"It's warm, yeah," said Bill Kombol, manager of Palmer Coking. The hill is made of bits of rock and coal mixed together, the waste products from coal mining. On the surface, they’re breaking down. 

Technically, the hill's not on fire, it's just very slow oxidization. It's smoldering, like grass clippings in a compost pile. "It's way down there," deep inside the hill, said Kombol. "It'll go on for years," he said, as it has been for half a century.

Palmer Coking doesn't sell coal anymore; it sells gravel and beauty bark. But the signs of coal are everywhere, and the history looms large in this town named for the black mineral that once gave it purpose. 

KUOW's Region of Boom Team is embedding in cities roughly an hour outside Seattle, to see how growth effects people there. This month, we're in Black Diamond. Where should we go next? Tweet @KUOW using #RegionOfBoom

When Kombol was in first grade in 1959, he drew a picture of that hill, with the same steam coming out of it. You can see it in the picture below. A second hill in the first grader's drawing is gone now — it burned to red cinders, which Kombol's company sold for decades as an alternative landscaping material to lava rock.

A pair of slag piles in Black Diamond, as drawn by first grader Billy Kombol in 1959. Kombol (now grown) said the black dots with steam coming out show how the hill has been smoldering for over half a century. The hill on the left, which had more coal in it, burned to red cinders, which were sold for decades as a landscaping material.
Credit Courtesy of Bill Kombol

Today, the giant slag hill is the first thing Kombol sees when he drives into town. It reminds him of the how important coal once was to Black Diamond. But the days when steam locomotives couldn’t get enough coal ended a long time ago. 

Since then, three cheaper forms of energy crippled the coal industry. 

“Number one was the discovery of oil in California," Kombol said. "The next thing was the building of the hydroelectric dams in Washington in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. And the third thing was the introduction of natural gas into Washington in the 1950s.” 

Kombol’s business survived by mining gravel instead. 

Bill Kombol, in front of some gravel crushing equipment. The coal mine that used to be here employed 400-500 workers. Today, Palmer Coking Coal Company employs about 18. Yet the volume of gravel that they mine is greater than during the company's heady coal mining days. Gravel mining, Kombol said, is about huge volumes of a low value product performed using lots of machines.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Meanwhile, those cheaper forms of energy continued to transform the region. Oil gave rise to the aviation industry. Hydropower helped produce aluminum, which helped Boeing grow. Over time, the region’s employment centers shifted away from places like Black Diamond, a town that dug things out of the ground, to places like Renton, where manufacturing, rather than coal, was king.

Preeti Shridhar, Renton's deputy public affairs director, led me along a path along the southern shore of Lake Washington. "I never get tired of saying it – but every 2.2 seconds, there’s a 737 that’s landing or taking off somewhere in the world that was built right here in Renton," she said. "Is that amazing or what?”

Right on the waterfront, workers were putting the finishing touches on a couple 737s.

Production of the planes has been up lately. It's a big story for Renton, but it's no longer the only story. 

“In the past, if people came to work in Renton, it was only Boeing," Shridhar said. Boeing continues to be a big player, but office jobs and health care jobs are growing even faster in Renton.

Preeti Shridhar, Deputy Public Affairs Administrator for the city of Renton, shows off development along the Renton waterfront, which feels like one big construction site.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Unlike Black Diamond, Renton diversified its economy, and now it’s booming.

“You’ve got to wait to get a table at a restaurant!” Shridhar said.

This is the start. More jobs are coming. There's a huge new hotel on the waterfront, and 730,000 square feet of luxury office space going up right behind it. “Renton is now seen as the third leg of the stool, if you will, with Seattle, Bellevue and Renton,” she said.

Renton is building apartments, but it can’t keep up with all the workers coming in. “There is a significant need for housing," she said.

A young Bill Kombol hands dynamite to veteran miner John Costanich in 1974. The Rogers Mine No. 3 was the last underground coal mine in Black Diamond (pit mines continued a bit longer). Costanich retired after the mine closed in 1975.
Credit Courtesy of Bill Kombol, Palmer Coking Coal Company

Which brings us back to Black Diamond, where some of Renton's future workers will presumably live. Over the next 20 years, there are plans to build around 6,000 new homes there. The new residents will move into a town where the residue of the coal mining industry is so fresh, it's literally still smoldering.

Ninety-eight percent of Black Diamond’s coal is still in the ground. Bill Kombol’s cousin hopes to reopen a small pit coal mine in Black Diamond, but Kombol says coal will never regain its dominance in the King County.

Because Black Diamond’s most valuable resource isn’t coal anymore. It’s land for houses, places for workers to live.

Joshua McNichols can be reached at jmcnichols@kuow.org. Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.