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Tennessee's Mineral Industry

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Ron Zurawski, Director
William R. Snodgrass Tennessee Tower
312 Rosa L. Parks Avenue, 12th Floor
Nashville, TN 37243
(615) 532-1502
Questions? Ask Geology

Tennessee’s mineral industry contributes nearly $800 million in product value annually. Total direct and indirect economic impact is nearly $8.8 billion annually, affecting more than 98,000 jobs. Tennessee has a history of mining more different kinds of mineral resources than any other state east of the Mississippi River except North Carolina, dating back to the late 18th century.

Energy minerals found in Tennessee include fossil fuels such as coal, oil, natural gas, and oil shales, and radioactive minerals, but not all are in deposits large enough or high-grade enough to recover under present economic conditions. Only coal, oil, and natural gas are currently being recovered, but their value is considerable, accounting for about 10 percent ($75 million) of the State’s annual mineral production value.

Tennessee’s coal production is small but generally high quality. All present production is bituminous coal from the Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountains regions. There is a sizable reserve of lignite in West Tennessee, more than a billion tons, but as yet there has been no mining. Coal production accounts for about 8.5 percent ($67 million) of Tennessee’s annual mineral production value.

Tennessee’s oil and gas production is small by national standards. Oil production currently totals about 350,000 barrels per year, down from more than one million barrels in 1982. Gas production was close to zero before 1977, when pipelines first reached the fields, but rose by 1984 to more than five billion cubic feet per year. It has since declined to slightly more than one billion cubic feet per year. Its current value ($4.7 million) is only about half that of the oil production ($9.1 million).

Tennessee is the leading producer of ball clay in the nation. Ball clay is used primarily in the manufacture of dinnerware, floor and wall tile, pottery, and sanitaryware, and accounts for about four percent ($29 million) of Tennessee’s annual mineral production value.

Construction materials mined or quarried in Tennessee include dimension stone (sandstone and marble), crushed stone, limestone and clay for making cement, and sand and gravel. While some of these are considered to be mineral commodities, rather than minerals in the strictest sense, they are all a very important part of Tennessee’s mineral industry. Collectively, these materials account for more than 50 percent ($442 million) of the State’s annual mineral production value, and production of one or another (or several) occurs in virtually every county in the State.

Zinc is another mineral of considerable importance to Tennessee’s economy. Mines and mills are currently being operated in Grainger, Jefferson, and Knox Counties in East Tennessee, and in Smith County in Middle Tennessee. Tennessee is currently the second largest producer of zinc in the nation. An electrolytic zinc plant in Clarksville operates at 105,000 tons per year, which accounts for 28 percent of U.S. zinc production. This plant is one of two in the United States that produce primary cadmium as a by-product during roasting and leaching of the zinc concentrate. The Smith county mines produce the highest-grade zinc concentrate in the world at 64.5 percent and are also one of the world’s largest sources of germanium, a critical and strategic material that is used in fiber optics, infrared systems, and semiconductors.