By the dim light of a headlamp, miners peer down avenues speckled with lights that make coal seam tunnels look more like urban streets. A close-knit community has developed around an industry that has kept the lights on, above ground, for more than a century.
But now, those underground communities face collapse. In early June, 80 full-time employees received notice of their layoffs from the West Elk Mine in Somerset, one of Colorado’s largest energy producers. The mine is the last still in operation in the North Fork Valley on the state’s Western Slope, where coal mining has been a mainstay of the rural economy for nearly 120 years.
Just five years ago, about 1,200 people in the North Fork Valley were employed by three local coal mines: the Bowie No. 2 mine, outside Paonia, and the Elk Creek and West Elk mines, both about nine miles up the road in Somerset. Now, fewer than 250 people remain employed, says Kathleen Welt, an environmental engineer at the West Elk Mine in Somerset. The Elk Creek mine has shut down permanently, and Bowie No. 2 is idled, leaving West Elk as the sole coal producer in the valley.
The decline of coal jobs on Colorado’s Western Slope is another example of reverberating layoffs across the West and the rest of the country. In April, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy announced 465 layoffs at two major Wyoming coal mines. Meanwhile, both behemoths, along with Alpha Natural Resources, which operates coal mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, have declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Historically low natural-gas prices mean that the fuel has been out-competing coal, and stricter environmental regulations make it harder for coal companies to stay in business. And many companies have been hurt by questionable business decisions and high executive salaries and bonuses.
While the cutbacks may be necessary to meet climate goals set by the Obama administration, in total, according to HCN data compiled from local media and energy industry reports, more than 1,600 coal-mining jobs have disappeared since 2012 across the West. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track industry or geographically specific unemployment data, but according to the agency’s census of employment statistics, employment within the coal industry in the West has declined by more than 4,000 jobs.
“Those jobs offer the ability to sustain your livelihood and keep your family here,” says Welt, who had been laid off in the past and rehired by Arch Western Resources in 2009. “When those jobs fade, so do communities. There’s nothing equitable to (a coal miner’s job) in the valley. A lot of people can’t afford to stay, so – they leave.”
For coal miners out of work, Western states have done little to provide a safety net. So far, there are no statewide programs that provide re-training, counseling or economic development strategies for extractive resource dependent economies. Some coal companies offer laid-off workers a severance package, but former miners have few options to gain positions that match their previous salaries – on average, more than $80,000 a year.
This story first published at www.hcn.org.