Uncertainty in the North Fork Valley

By Whitton Feer – Somerset Colorado

The modified RAM 3500 bounced through the coal mine at 25mph. It was equipped with a speed limiter to ensure the safety of those in the mine. The driver, John Poulos, flashed his lights before turning one of the many 90 degree, blind corners. This safety precaution was repeated many times before truck bounced to a halt 7 miles into the lightless West Elk Coal mine, in Somerset Colorado.

Poulos tapped his fingers on the wheel, quietly humming to himself as he nudged the truck into 2nd gear. A cloud of limestone dust billowed up behind the rear tires. It coats all surfaces in the mine, used to stop the coal that supports the mine’s structure from combusting.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment”, said Poulos, who is close to retirement after 29 years of work as a coal mine engineer,

He said he finds pride in providing power to households around the world, a task few people can claim as their profession.

But the coal industry is in danger. As the world transitions away from coal, communities like Somerset and miners like Poulos will be forced from their jobs and homes. 

“The coal industry has been the black sheep of the energy industry,” said Kathy Welt, the senior environmental engineer at West Elk Coal mine.

“We’ve been set up as the reason for climate change,” she said.

The coal industry is under attack on many different fronts, said Welt. The North Fork Valley used to employ 1200 people in the mining industry. It now only supports 365 people working for one mine, Welt said. 

In addition to mine shutdowns and layoffs, activists and laws are making operations difficult for the West Elk Mine, she said.

The Roadless Act is currently prohibiting West Elk from installing new methane vents that would allow for underground expansion of their longwall and environmental NGO’s bring West Elk to court for every action they take toward expansion, said Welt. 

“It’s not fun anymore,” she said, referring to working in the coal industry. There are so many factors preventing new development that the mine will be forced to shut down within 15 years, said Welt.

“Most people aren’t thinking about what’s next,” said Poulos, who doesn’t have to worry about job security as he nears retirement. But he is concerned about the younger workers. “A lot of them are coming right out of high school,” he said. They’re looking for jobs in coal, as it pays much higher on average than a job in ranching or renewable energy. 

The starting salary at West Elk Mine is between 70,000-80,000 per year, said Welt. “The pay scale is not the same” for solar, Pete Mueller said, who works for Solar Energy International, a Paonia based solar installation and education organization. Due to the hazardous nature of coal mining, the starting wage is far more attractive than the 15 dollars an hour that many basic solar jobs offer, said Mueller.

Regardless of the economic deterrent, many miners don’t want to work in renewables. “There is an ideological hurdle there,” said Mueller. Most of the people he trains for the solar industry aren’t coming from coal, he said.

In the past, when mines have shut down in the North Fork Valley, people leave for other mines around the US, but few go into renewables, said Welt.

Both Mueller and Welt agree that the coal mine shutdown will pose a serious economic hurdle for the North Fork Valley. Neither of them know where the miners will go, or what other industry could fill the hole in the economy that shutdown will create.

The men and women working by headlamp deep in West Elk Mine face an uncertain future. Their industry, although highly profitable, is on a steep decline. Once the conveyor belt dragging thousands of tons of coal out to the train below stops, the miners and the entire valley they sustain will be forced to undergo massive changes.

“If we lose our longwall, were done,” said Welt.

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