Uncertainty in the air: Pollution crackdowns leave workers wondering what’s next

By Auguste Voss

COLORADO SPRINGS—As corporations and communities across the United States begin to heed the advice of activists and scientists stressing the importance of switching to renewables, the impacts of a changing industry affect more than just the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

People whose careers are entwined with fossil fuels are finding their futures called into question. Colorado Springs’ coal-burning Martin Drake Power Plant is already slated for closure due to statewide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are responsible for rising temperatures and environmental effects like urban heatwaves that disproportionately affect low-income communities.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment plans to combat air pollution and transition to renewable energy include decommissioning coal plants, and several have already been shut down in the Denver Metro Area. John Putnam, environmental director at CDPHE, is among those involved in seeing through the “regulatory pathway” toward clean air and sustainable energy.

“We want to nip it in the bud,” he said in an interview last week. Putnam now has his sights set on closing plants near Pueblo – and Martin Drake in Colorado Springs. 

Workers in the plant put on brave faces, despite plans to decommission.

“I’ve never once thought that I’d be jobless,” said David Bertrand, 34, an operator and technician at Martin Drake Power Plant in the heart of Colorado Springs. He said that he’s confident the city will relocate him to a different department when the plant is decommissioned.

Other workers echoed Bertrand’s optimism, but doubt loomed behind their claims of confidence.

“The energy industry has pretty much flipped on its head since I started,” said plant manager Ian Gavin. “To me, it’s like times are changing faster than we can change infrastructure.” 

Colorado Springs leaders have committed to shutting down Drake by 2035 at the latest, but some are pushing for a much earlier closure. City Council President Richard Skorman told local news in 2018 that he believes the city can close the plant by 2023, depending on the success of solar and wind power.

Garvin and others at Drake know that their plant is closing, and remain optimistic about the changes to come. But wind and solar technology are constantly evolving, meaning new territory for the entire industry. Workers at Martin Drake don’t know if they will have the same pay and benefits, or if they’ll have jobs at all.

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