Coal Industry Collapse Leaves Mining Towns Unsure
The whole coal industry — soul of Colorado’s North Fork Valley and other Western communities — is collapsing.
📅 Wed August 31, 2016 - West Edition #18
Bruce Finley - The Denver Post
The latest international climate change treaty for cutting carbon emissions is gaining signatures from many nations.
SOMERSET, Colo. (AP) Coal miner Eric Sanchez bolted a grate across the top of a tunnel, 1,000 ft. (305 m) beneath a forest and 7 mi. (11 km) deep into Arch Coal's West Elk Mine.
Shiny black rocks fell past his helmet as he secured the tunnel, doing a job that is fast disappearing in Colorado: taking coal from deep inside Earth and sending it off to create electricity.
As Sanchez and his fellow miners bring up fuel to fire power plants, the whole coal industry — soul of Colorado's North Fork Valley and other Western communities — is collapsing.
Statewide coal production has plummeted by 50 percent since 2004, costing hundreds of jobs, the Denver Post reported.
At Oxbow's nearby Elk Creek Mine, now closed, demolition workers along now-silent train tracks were placing 700 dynamite sticks to blow up a defunct 140-ft. (42.6 m) coal silo.
At a third mine in the area, 30 miners have just been laid off as Bowie Resources dismantles. And in Craig, Peabody Energy, owner of another Colorado coal mine, recently declared bankruptcy, bringing the number of bankrupt coal companies nationwide to 50 — including Arch Coal.
But Sanchez drills ahead full bore, blasting a steel bit into a wall as if coal was still king — in 30 seconds churning out 9 tons (8 t) of the rock that makes electricity.
“You take pride in making a nice cut, good footage,” he said.
Sanchez and fellow miner Steve Armendariz, fathers supporting families in Delta, Colo., follow the roiling debate about coal, record-high carbon dioxide pollution and climate change.
They chafe at commentator Bill Maher's recent call for a war on “outdated” coal and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's remark about putting miners and companies out of business. Armendariz laments a public perception “that we're ignorant people down here with shovels.”
Mining foreman Terry Hardman argues that “windmills and solar just ain't strong enough, ain't going to carry us.”
Hardman added, “I cannot see how we've heated this planet.”
The miners know too well the rising pressures against coal: a national Clean Power Plan to cut the carbon emissions from coal-burning that scientists blame for global warming, and Colorado's push to convert coal-fired power plants — even though coal still generates 60 percent of electricity used in Colorado.
U.S. Forest Service officials won't let Arch Coal drill new vents needed to expand under roadless woods.
Colorado Mining Association president Stuart Sanderson lambasted these impediments as “ill-advised laws designed to drive coal out of the energy mix in favor of higher-cost energy sources.” While the Supreme Court delayed the national plan, “government has caused significant harm to this industry,” Sanderson said. “That war on affordable energy and on Colorado jobs must stop.”
Breaking for a moment from drilling, Sanchez nodded in the beam of a headlight. The driver of a roaring diesel loader backed close and collected those 9 tons and hauled them partially out of the tunnel to a grinder, which spit smaller chunks onto a rubber belt carrying them out to a silo.
“I think about where the coal is going,” Sanchez said, “what it is going to do.”
But there's the problem. Trains that once arrived five times a day now roll in twice a week at most. Colorado's 1,200 remaining miners have lost the niche they once had for super-hard, relatively clean-burning low-sulfur coal that power plants could use to avoid installing costly pollution-control technology.
No longer can West Elk sell coal that Sanchez produces across the Midwest and as far as Mexico, Italy and Chile.
More Than Economic Loss
Coal's rapid decline means more than economic loss. Since 1864, the mining in western Colorado built communities, creating a common world that gave continuity, identity and purpose.
“Daddy,” Armendariz, in the darkness, recounted the recent question from his 12-year-old daughter, “can I have a little piece of coal to give to my teacher?”
“My kids are proud that I am a miner,” he said. “That is why I am down here — my kids.”
West Elk manager Jim Miller looked on as the men worked. His workforce has decreased from 450 in 2009 to 300 as Arch Coal clings under federal bankruptcy protection.
Miller mulls the dwindling markets and brainstorms how to cut costs so coal might compete better against the cheap natural gas. Inside America's urban power plants, he knows, grid operators working at computers increasingly tweak turbines to draw more electricity from gas and wind sources — saving money for ratepayers.
Every week brings new challenges. A ban on carpet in California landfills is providing a new fuel for a Nevada power plant that once bought more West Elk coal. In Colorado, a new state subsidy for burning old car tires as fuel in a cement plant discourages purchases of coal.
The latest international climate change treaty for cutting carbon emissions is gaining signatures from nations. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund won't lend to countries relying heavily on coal. Investors increasingly try to minimize “climate risk.”
For Miller, keeping miners motivated amid such a storm requires a positive attitude. When he arrives each morning at West Elk, Colorado's largest underground mine, he's all about resilience and focus.
“You do get very frustrated,” he said. “Everything's crushing in on coal. The biggest thing that drives me is: If I am not positive, I cannot expect my workforce to be positive.”
Coal miners have long endured tough conditions. However, West Elk has been recognized as a star — zero environmental issues for 16 years and an official designation as the nation's safest underground mine.
Western Colorado leaders say they are lobbying to keep coal part of the electricity grid. More mine closures, Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber warned, could mean crisis.
House values in the area are falling and schools are struggling, losing more than 100 students a year since 2008. Families uproot and move to hunt for new jobs in Utah, Montana and other spots where coal mines still function.
The end of production at the Oxbow and Bowie over the past two years has killed roughly 1,000 jobs — mining jobs that county officials said paid an average of $80,000 plus health benefits and pensions. Delta County has lost 12 percent of its tax revenues with the recent closures.
Today, leaders are counting on West Elk.
“It is pretty important to us,” Roeber said. His grandfather mined coal and eventually saved enough to establish an orchard. “This is the last mine left.”
Roeber said he receives phone calls “almost daily, saying marijuana is going to save us.” He and county administrator Robbie LeValley shook their heads. The Town Council in Hotchkiss voted down recreational pot; Paonia's Town Council voted it down twice.
“We're going to have to make our economy more diverse,” LeValley said.
The Ground Shook
Demolition of the landmark coal silo at Oxbow's shuttered Elk Creek Mine the morning of April 29 shook the ground. This was a first step toward eventual cleanup and restoration of the land.
Residents of Somerset (population 90), a mining company town, stood in front of row homes. Some cried.
Black clouds billowed as concrete crumpled, snuffing out the train tracks and all sound.
Mine manager Mike Ludlow watched from above on a mountainside. He employed 380 miners a few years ago. Now he has three.
He winced as a crew from Controlled Demolition Inc. brought down the silo.
“A job well done, because it had to be done, but sad,” Ludlow said.
“We're going too far too fast. A more structured phase-out would be better for the country,” he said. “This is hurting lots of people.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper said coal “is losing to natural gas” because gas has emerged as cheaper to produce and cleaner as a source of electricity.
“[Coal mines] are losing that cost battle. And we don't see any indication natural gas prices are going to go up,” Hickenlooper said in a recent interview.
Miners who are losing jobs must be retrained, he said, pointing to better internet connections as essential for boosting rural economies.
“We have an obligation, just like when somebody loses their job to technology, and we should be thinking about how we retrain people in rural areas to have new careers,” he said. “What do those look like? The key to all of this is broadband. Ultimately, if we're going to retrain people for the jobs of the future, it is almost always going to come down to some connection with broadband. It is a priority.”
Yes, faster internet connections will help, Delta county officials said.
Yet the prospect of retraining by watching videos on laptops does not appeal to coal miners accustomed to solid work with certain high pay. “They are doers,” innovative and nimble, an Oxbow executive explained. Offering better broadband as a fix for lost mining “is throwing a bone to a dying dog,” Ludlow said.
“The anger here doesn't manifest itself as violence. It manifests as a sadness. People end up cutting back,” he said. “You want better for your family than what you had. And if you're the provider for your family and you cannot provide, it has an impact. This is difficult.”
Nobody sees new jobs, green jobs or any jobs comparable to mining in salary and benefits.
Many are gripped with nostalgia.
By her lifelong home in Somerset, Colo., Myrna Ungaro, 60, waiting for the silo explosion, remembered how she and other sons and daughters of Italian immigrant miners played on the mountainside — above Bill Koch's Oxbow mine, rocks they called their “palace.” Her grandfather and father worked in mines. Back then, six mines thrummed along a snaking road by the river.
Ungaro always wanted to join men — like Sanchez and Amendariz — blasting away underground, she said. She went repeatedly to mine offices asking to be hired. But fathers didn't want their daughters to be miners and ensured such efforts led nowhere.
Now Ungaro said she can't find work near home. She'd have to drive nearly 80 mi. (129 km) to Aspen or another resort.
“That's where the money is, over the mountains,” she said. “They have all the money. That's the way it is.”
She gazed at the silo.
“I'm upset. I've been crying all night. You live long enough, you will see everything. I'm going to cry again. Oh, my goodness. The wind. The president. Coal. No more coal mines.”
As the silo fell, she could see the mountainside more clearly. Soon, Oxbow must hire a contractor to restore that mountainside to a natural condition.
“Now it goes back,” she said with a sigh. “It'll be like it was back before.”
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