Tensions rise as mines close

By: Olivia Dicks

NORTH FORK VALLEY—Younger and middle generations working in industries that are harming and increasing our climate warming are being affected much more as the concern for the climate change increases in the North Fork Valley.

In the West Elk Coal Mine, “we’re running out of coal, we’ll be done with this panel by December,” Kathy Welt said, an employee of the last open coal mine in Colorado. 

The mine must get permits allowing them to start mining another panel.

These permits aren’t easy to get either, and they’re very extensive, “It took 11 years and we’re still not done,” Welt said. Without these permits, West Elk Coal Mine will shut down because they’ll have nowhere else to mine.

The reason the permits can take so long is lawsuits. Environmental groups just began firing more lawsuits against the mine and have increased recently due to more concern about climate change, and an increased concern of how many emissions mines are letting out. 

“They want us closed,” Welt said.

Environmentally, closing down the coal mine could help a lot. Individually though, this could be very detrimental to people working for the coal mine along with North Fork Valley.

Closing down the mine would mean a loss in around 360 employees in the valley, Welt said. This could be feasible, except that this isn’t the first time the valley has lost a large number of employees. 

“There were over 1,200 miners in the valley,” and now there are only 360, she said. The number of employees has steadily been decreasing throughout the years, affecting families and the valley.

Older generations and employees aren’t worried about it because they’re most likely approaching retirement before the mine will shut down, Ben Godwin said, a current engineer at West Elk Coal Mine, and former engineer at Oxbow Coal Mine. 

There’s starting to be a significant concern in younger generations and families of lower or middle-class households as the mine begins to dwindle, Godwin said. 

As the coal mine gets shut down, many families will have to move to an area with more sustainable jobs uprooting their lives and their families and moving them to an unknown city, he said. 

For others, if they want to stay in the valley, another job pathway would be in solar energy. 

Although coal miners and solar energy work against each other, this could be where many people move to next, Godwin said. 

The North Fork Valley is the home of the headquarters for Solar Energy International (SEI). This is where they train and retrain operators, technicians, and installers.

Many coal mine workers struggle mentally with this transition because they’re much different environments and communities.

You’re going from “pretty hazardous work and hazardous pay to” an installer whose most significant concern is being on a roof, said Pete Mueller, director of the campus at SEI. Because the hazardous level is so much different, so is the pay. 

Along with pay and hazard levels, coal miners would have to live a much different lifestyle. 

For one thing, they’d be going to work for and with many people who had previously been fighting against what they do, “a handful, maybe a majority, of our students are climate-driven,” Mueller said. This means many of the lawsuits filed against the mine could have come from groups in which they are involved. 

Coal miners will also have to work in a completely different lifestyle and setting.

The employees would be going from knee-high boots, a full-body jumpsuit with reflectors, a hard hat with two lights on it, goggles and earplugs, and a belt with a breathing device, to a younger, hip generation that wears skinny jeans, tight t-shirts, sneakers, and a flat bill much too long.

These different lifestyles and beliefs in the community create tensions that didn’t use to exist before the concern for preventing coal mines from increasing climate change began.

One side of the argument believes if the United States closes down every single power plant nationwide, it wouldn’t even make much of a difference, and it would do more harm to the families and towns they live in than it would help the Earth, Welt said. 

The other side argues that “the movement away from coal will promote renewable energy,” Mueller said. 

While some companies, like SEI, can benefit from people wanting to prevent climate change, others, like coal mines, are being harmed drastically. Neither side understands the difficulties they’ll each begin to go through if things start changing. This is creating concern and tension in the valley for the employees, residents, and companies. 

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