POTTSVILLE, Pa. - Hard coal built this area of Eastern Pennsylvania into an economic powerhouse in the 1800s and early 1900s, and helped fuel the nation's industrial revolution. Even today, it's hard to find a native who doesn't have roots underground.

So it was with no small dose of irony that Schuylkill County leaders recently offered a proposal that would have seemed unthinkable when coal was still king: converting the county courthouse and prison from homegrown anthracite to - gasp - natural gas heat.

The county commissioners say they're trying to save money.

But their idea went over like an anthracite balloon with coal executives and coal-region lawmakers, who say the county is sending the wrong message about coal's future - and disrespecting its past.

Brian Rich, a member of Schuylkill County's most prominent coal family, called the proposal "insulting" and "the saddest idea ever to originate from Schuylkill County government" in a recent letter to the editor of the Republican and Herald in Pottsville.

"It's emotional for me," said Rich, whose family has been in mining for a century. "I have a terrific pride in this industry and the people in it."

Though the industry is a shadow of its former self, Schuylkill County remains the nation's No. 1 producer of anthracite, a hard coal found mainly in Eastern Pennsylvania.

It is used in metal refining, electricity generation and, yes, even to this day, in some home heating. In this county, 2006 census estimates showed about 10 percent of households still heating with coal.

Rich's company, Reading Anthracite, exports coal to Brazil, Belgium and Canada, while a company run by his brother won a $100 million federal grant to build the nation's first plant converting waste coal to low-emissions diesel.

State Sen. James J. Rhoades (R., Schuylkill) said the commissioners should be promoting anthracite at a time when the industry is aggressively seeking new customers and new applications for one of the area's best-known products. (Yuengling beer is an even more famous export.)

"We're known for anthracite coal. We have it readily available," Rhoades said. "Why are we doing this? It doesn't make sense."

Advocates of natural gas say it makes even less sense for the county to spend more money on energy than needed.

Mantura Gallagher, chairwoman of the Schuylkill County commissioners, said the board asked for bids for a "guaranteed energy-savings contract" and got only one response - from Honeywell International Inc.

Honeywell's proposal calls for gas-fired boilers at the courthouse, prison, and county-run nursing home; energy-efficient lighting; and an upgraded telecommunications system. The company guaranteed the county a savings of $3.2 million over 15 years.

"There'd be nothing that would make me happier than to heat our buildings with coal," Gallagher said. "But it's my responsibility as the fiscal steward of this county to spend these dollars as wisely as I possibly can. And to spend them sentimentally is not fair to the taxpayer."

Gallagher said she welcomes the input of the coal companies, but wants installation of a new system to begin no later than Aug. 1, in time for the heating season.

Another commissioner, Frank McAndrew, believes that timetable is too ambitious, but he is similarly adamant about cutting costs.

He said the region's coal heritage should be taken into account if an anthracite supplier can match Honeywell. But if natural gas winds up costing less, "we can't just say anthracite coal is wonderful," said McAndrew.

A few blocks from the courthouse, Michon Zalewski, 38, a bartender whose forebears worked in the mines, initially panned the idea of Schuylkill County abandoning coal.

"They should use what this area is famous for," she declared.

Then she gave it a little more thought.

"But if it's going to save money, that's a good argument," said Zalewski, who grew up across the street from a colliery. "There's loyalty, and there's saving money."