By Rainy Adkins
Recently a small group of student journalists drove seven miles under the earth through narrow tunnels and low ceilings to the only long-wall mining site at the West Elk coal mine. The headlights of the pick-up reflected off walls of coal dusted with limestone. Each turn looked exactly like the last. This is the drive that hundreds of miners take to work each day.
“We’re the last mine standing,” senior environmental engineer Kathy Welt said, referencing the two other mine closures that used to be the lifeblood of the North Fork Valley.
The North Fork Valley has always been a coal mining hub, but today the mining industry is beginning to outlive its era. Two mines in the valley have closed. West Elk only has 10-15 years left.
The shut-downs of the other mines have severely shrunk what used to be a coal mining community. Now, Paonia, a town right up the road, is becoming a retirement spot for educated front-rangers, filling the houses that miners families used to occupy.
In 2010, three mines employed 1200 miners in the valley, according to Welt. Tighter environmental restrictions and safety regulations are making mining more difficult. Less market demand for coal is making it less worth it.
For the miners, that means their jobs are in jeopardy. Miners know that they won’t have a job at West Elk in 10-15 years but most haven’t planned out their futures yet.
“Only think one year ahead,” engineer at West Elk Ben Godwin said. Godwin isn’t very interested in thinking about the far-away future.
Godwin is in a better position than some of his coworkers. He graduated from Colorado School of Mines with an engineering degree that he says could transfer to civil engineering. Others came to work at the mine right out of high school, and have fewer options.
When the neighboring Oxbow mine closed, a few workers got jobs working for the local high school as a janitor or in maintenance, or at the supermarket Godwin said.
A few displaced miners have been retrained as solar installers.
“We’ve definitely retrained people who worked in the mines,” said Pete Mueller, director of campus and hands-on training at Solar Energy International.
But solar installation jobs are hardly the solution to miners’ unemployment problem. There are major barriers including ideology, less solar job availability, and pay decrease.
“None [of the other jobs] pay as well,” Godwin said. The starting wage for installing solar panels on roofs is $15-$20 per hour. The average salary at West Elk is $113,532 including benefits. This reality pushes some laid-off miners to move and find other mining jobs somewhere else.
“Some want to stay here, others have left,” Welt said. The openings left by vacated miners are being filled with a different population of people. Just up the road in Paonia, small farms, wineries, and influx of retirees are diversifying the economy.
“There’s definitely a dichotomy of culture here,” said Mueller.
But in the dark, loud depths of the coal mine, the reality of changes in the community, economy, and climate are forgotten. Miners must focus on a 200 million dollar circular spinning blade, taking coal off the wall by the foot. Or the methane levels that could explode. Or structural stability of the walls and ceiling. Or making sure equipment is running efficiently. That doesn’t allow for error, much less thought about 10 years into the future.