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Four channel-filling coal beds from the lower part of the Breathitt Formation (lower Middle Pennsylvanian, late Westphalian A) were examined palynologically, petrographically and geochemically to determine the paleoenvironmental conditions under which these peats accumulated. These results were then compared with detailed sedimentological analyses of the strata overlying the coal in the channels to see if any genetic relationship between coal composition and the origin of the overburden could be drawn. All four of the coal beds used in this study are located in the western-most part of the Eastern Kentucky Coal Field and occur at, or near, the Early Pennsylvanian unconformity (0-30 m). Lycospora and Densosporites (and related crassicingulate taxa, e.g. Cristatisporites, Cingulizonates and Radiizonates) dominate the studied assemblages, with Granulatisporites (and related trilete, sphaerotriangular genera, e.g. Leiotriletes and Lophotriletes), Laevigatosporites and Schulzospora being common accessory genera. Petrographically, all four coals contain high percentages of vitrinite macerals (avg. 78.6% mineral matter free), moderate amounts of liptinite (or exinite) macerals (avg. 14.9%, mmf) and low percentages of inertinite macerals (avg. 6.5%, mmf). Strata above the coals consist of dark, carbonaceous shales, and heterolithic strata that exhibit varying degrees of bioturbation. Commonly occurring trace fossils include Arenicolites, Monocraterion, Planolites and Skolithos. Although marine-influenced strata, as determined from detailed sedimentology and ichnology (the study of trace fossils), covers all four coal beds, they are not uniformly high in total total sulfur content as might be expected. Rather they are extremely variable, ranging from 1-9% (dry basis) total sulfur. Ash yields are also variable ranging from 6.2-54.3% (dry basis). It is probable that the origin of the very first sediments covering the peat, as well as the amount of brackish water influence during peat accumulation, were important factors in determining the total sulfur content of the resultant coal. Initial sedimentation of fresh water clays and silts may have acted as a barrier to downward percolation/diffusion of sulfate bearing waters, or may have served as a site for sulfide formation, thereby keeping the total sulfur content of the underlying coal low. If initial sedimentation was of brackish or marine origin, as indicated by bioturbated laminae directly above the coal, or if the peat was subject to frequent brackish or marine water influence during accumulation, then sulfide generation might proceed unchecked, resulting in high sulfur coal.
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Channel-fill coal beds along the western margin of the Eastern Kentucky Coal Field