Black as coal, or so the expression goes.

But for the past decade or so Utah's coal industry has been singing the blues. "No matter how you look at the coal business it's not been good," said House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price.And when the coal suffers, so do thousands of families in Carbon and Emery counties who rely on coal - directly or indirectly - to feed their families.

Things have looked particularly bleak for six or seven years now. But there's a cautious note of optimism creeping into many of the coal mines in Utah.

Not only is Utah now producing more coal than ever before in the state's history, but recent events, particularly in the Middle East, could also spell increased demand for coal.

"We don't want to see blood spilled in order to help the coal industry," said Mike Dalpiaz, District 22 president of the United Mine Workers of America. "But if the situation continues over a long period, I think we'll see more miners back to work."

Getting unemployed miners back to work has been a difficult task for the local unions. More efficient mining equipment has required far fewer miners to produce far more coal.

In both 1988 and 1989, coal production reached record levels, surpassing 20 million tons. But while production increased 62 percent since 1983, employment over the same period actually fell 39 percent.

Even with increased efficiency, the companies say coal mining is barely profitable. But union officials have a hard time swallowing the company line.

"They are not making what they used to in years past when coal was $40 a ton," Dalpiaz said. "Now, maybe they are making $30 a ton, but they are mining three times the coal they were before. Maybe their capital investment is more, but they are mining more coal and they are doing it with fewer people.

"Of course they are making more money!"

The "production up-employment down" phenomenon is the direct result of "modernization of mining equipment," Dalpiaz admits.

In the early to mid-1970s, the companies started putting in the new "long wall" equipment, and by the early 1980s they had perfected it. With "Long wall" equipment, two to three times as much coal can be mined with half as many people, sometimes even fewer.

Today, 90 percent of all operating Utah coal mines are "long wall" operations - more than in any other Western state.

According to Tracy Bunderson, coal marketer for Cyprus Plateau Mining, an economic recovery for Utah's coal industry - if it really happens - will hinge on three factors:

- Increased demand by Asian countries.

- Higher spot-market coal prices spurred by higher oil prices.

- Increased domestic and foreign demand for environmentally cleaner coals.

Those Utah coal companies now prospering are those with long-term contracts to large coal consumers, particularly coal-powered power plants. Those mines that market their coal on the open, or "spot," market are having a difficult go because of cutthroat competition and oversupply.

Many mines that first closed during the crash of 1982-83 remain closed, and additional mines have been closing ever since. Just last year, AMAX Mining shut down one Utah mine, and another Emery County mine laid off all its miners several weeks ago.

Soft prices for coal is largely the payback for industry over

optimism. When oil prices shot through the roof in the 1970s, coal and oil companies raced to purchase coal reserves and install more labor-efficient equipment - all in anticipation of a huge boom in coal demand as factories converted from oil to coal power.

While coal supplies shot up, the anticipated increase in demand never came close to expectations. And the resulting glut of coal caused coal prices to plummet.

In the 1970s and early 1980s in Utah, various coal companies were wildly optimistic about the future of the Intermountain Power Project, originally planned for four power-generating units each requiring eight million tons of Utah coal a year.

And even more large coal-powered power projects were planned for the region, all of which had the cumulative effect of tempting Utah coal companies to invest heavily in new mines and equipment to produce more coal.

But the IPP project was eventually cut by half, and other coal-powered projects were canceled.

"After all the investment to increase supply, the coal industry was faced with greater capacity than demand," said Bunderson. "It's taken the industry the last six to eight years to absorb that."

The current recovery comes despite no new coal-fired power plants (and none scheduled anytime in the near future). Rather market growth has come through trade with Asian countries.

"Our only real opportunity for growth is the export market," he said. "It's a market growing by 8 to 10 percent a year."

Currently, about 14 million tons of the 19 million harvested annually in Utah go to feed the IPP near Delta. Exports to foreign countries account for 1.7 million tons - a figure small by comparison but a market state officials expect will grow dramatically.

Coal demand is expected to increase by 30 million tons over the next three to five years in Asia. "And Western coal producers are trying to grab their share of that," Bunderson said.

While Utah is poised to take advantage of any and all trade opportunities, transportation costs are the state's biggest drawback. To the east, Utah must compete with less-expensive Montana and Wyoming coal.

Utah's clearest advantage is to the west and southwest, where Nevada and California have no coal production.

Where Utah has a clear advantage is its low-sulfur, high-quality coal.

"Worldwide there is a significant emphasis on environmental concerns," Bunderson said. "People are forcing coal consumers to consider higher quality coal with higher heating values and lower ash. And that makes Utah coal more attractive."

He admits the federal Clean Air Act is not likely to affect demand for Utah coal, at least not immediately, because "Wyoming and Colorado are the first source of supply for eastern states."

But as demand for higher-quality, more environmentally sensitive coals increases, there may yet be an increased demand for Utah coal.

The value of the Utah coal production in 1989 was about $471 million. Utah is the nation's 14th highest coal producer with 20.4 million tons in 1989. Wyoming is the nation's largest coal producer at 171.4 million tons annually.