Petrography, palynology, and paleoecology of the Lower Pennsylvanian Bon Air coal, Franklin County, Cumberland Plateau, southeast Tennessee

Stephen A. Shaver, Cortland F. Eble, James C. Hower, Frederick L. Saussy

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12 Scopus citations


Stratigraphy, palynology, petrography, and geochemistry of the Bon Air coal from the Armfield, Dotson, Rutledge, and Shakerag mine sites of Franklin County, Tennessee suggest that Bon Air seams at all sites were small (≤ 1.0 mile, 1.6 km), spatially distinct paleomires that evolved from planar to domed within the fluviodeltaic Lower Pennsylvanian Raccoon Mountain Formation. Of observed palynoflora, 88-97% are from lycopsids prevalent in the Westphalian. Densosporites palynomorphs of small lycopsids (e.g., Omphalophloios) dominate at the shale-hosted Armfield site, while Lycospora palynoflora of large arboreous lycopsids (especially Lepidodendron, with lesser Lepidophloios harcourtii and Lepidophloios hallii) dominate where intercalated siltstone/sandstone/shale hosts the coal (all other sites). Palynoflora of other lycopsids (Sigillaria and Paralycopodites), tree ferns, seed ferns, small ferns, calamites, and cordaites are generally minor. Genera of clastic-associated Paralycopodites are most common in Shakerag's coal (≥ 10%), yet quite rare in Rutledge or Dotson coals. Overall, the palynomorph assemblages suggest that the Bon Air paleomires were forest swamps, and Early Pennsylvanian in age (Westphalian A, Langsettian). Dominant macerals at all sites are vitrinites, with fine collodetrinite (from strongly decomposed plant debris) more common than coarser collotelinite (from well-preserved plant fragments), and with lesser inertinites (fusinite and semifusinite) and liptinites (dominantly sporinite). Shakerag's coal has greatest abundance (mineral-matter-free) of collotelinite (up to 47%) and total vitrinite (74-79%) of any sites, but lowest liptinite (12-14.5%) and inertinite (7-11%). The Dotson and Rutledge seams contain moderate liptinite (21-23%) and highest inertinite (36-37%), lowest vitrinite (≤ 41%), and lowest collotelinite (13-15%). Armfield's seam has relatively high liptinite (26-28%) and vitrinite (56.5-62%), but rather low inertinite (12-15%). Moderately high ash (11.0-20.0%) and low to moderate sulfur (1.24% avg.) are typical, but ash may locally be up to 38% and sulfur up to 2.9%. Volatile matter (32.1-41.3%), calorific value (33.3-34.9 MJ/kg MAF), moisture (2.2-3.4%), and vitrinite reflectance (0.70-0.84% Rmax; 0.64-0.79% Rrandom) place the Bon Air's rank as high-volatile-A bituminous (hvAb). The Armfield coal was probably a channel-distal paleomire, perhaps an oxbow lake or floodplain depression, which domed and then subsided back to planarity prior to burial. Features of its basal and uppermost benches suggest low-lying, often-flooded (but periodically dry) mires marked by fluvial influxes and diverse lycopsid growth. These include variable inertinite, common palynoflora of both small lycopsids (Omphalophloios-like) and large arboreous ones (Lepidophloios and Lepidodendron), minor but significant palynoflora of subaerial levee or levee/mire transition species (especially Paralycopodites), moderate to high ash, variable sulfur, and elevated levels of commonly fluvial trace elements (e.g., Al, Cr, REEs, Rb, Sr, Th, V, Y, and Zr). These benches also contain high total vitrinite, high collotelinite/collodetrinite ratios, and clays with moderate to low kaolinite/quartz ratios, all consistent with the near-neutral pH and limited peat degradation that typify such planar mires. By contrast, middle benches at Armfield reflect mires domed above the land surface, less-often flooded, less-preservational, and of lower pH: coals have lower ash, vitrinite, and collotelinite, less palynoflora of both large arboreous lycopsids and Paralycopodites, and high proportions of kaolinite, liptinite, and Densosporites. Similar data at Shakerag suggest that its mire also grew from planar to domed. However, more abundant Paralycopodites, a kaolinite-poor but quartz-and-illite-rich underclay, benches alternately ash-rich and ash-poor, and an upper bench truncated by channel sandstone, suggest that it was channel-proximal and prone to intermittent clastics. It is unclear if it returned to planarity prior to burial. The mires at Dotson and (especially) Rutledge, with more ferns, more inertinite, less Paralycopodites and less vitrinite, were probably topographically elevated or protractedly domed mires, more vulnerable to drought or fire.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-46
Number of pages30
JournalInternational Journal of Coal Geology
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - May 3 2006

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors wish to thank K. Kuers, University of the South, for help with illustrations, and John Crelling and Bill Huggett, Southern Illinois University, for sample preparation and considerable time and advice to SAS and FLS early in the project. Funds were provided by the University of the South (Domain 2020 II Initiative and Faculty Research Funds) and the Beloved Physicians Fund.


  • Bon Air bituminous coal
  • Geochemistry
  • Lower Pennsylvanian
  • Paleoecology
  • Palynology
  • Sewanee, Tennessee

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Fuel Technology
  • Geology
  • Economic Geology
  • Stratigraphy


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