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The United States, with hundreds of years worth of estimated reserves, is sometimes called the "OPEC of coal." Yet it is increasing its imports of the black stuff.

Market experts predict a steady rise in imports from 1 million to 4 million tons a year shipped to electric utilities here between now and 1990, supplied chiefly by South Africa. Although minuscule compared with total US production -- possibly 844 million tons this year -- such imports point up increasing US difficulty in competing with South Africa in terms of miners wages, deeper ports , and new superships in selling to the expanding demand from Western Europe and Japan.

One clinker: possible political backlash may prevent more trade with white-dominated South Africa, unless it starts making concessions to blacks.m

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