By Rachel Colchete
The mining towns of the North Fork Valley have had a long and reliant relationship with coal, so as America pulls away from the controversial industry, their population feels the direct aftermath.
The West Elk Mine, which stands just east of Paonia in the small mining community of Somerset, is the last remaining coal mine in the valley. Employees at West Elk don’t share the same urgent anti-coal sentiments as environmental activist groups.
“Why is this industry being targeted?” said Kathy Welt, an environmental engineer at West Elk.
She is skeptical that her industry should bear the brunt of environmentalist fury and says that coal emissions only play a “minute” part in climate change. Instead, Welt points the finger back at us.
“We weren’t the culprit. It’s tailpipe emissions.”
Environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, High Country Conservation Advocates, Center for Biological Diversity, and Wild Earth Guardians seem to think otherwise. In their multiple and ongoing lawsuits against the mine, they have not been shy to call attention to the fact that West Elk is Colorado’s largest industrial source of methane pollution.
Welt emphasized how workers are being affected by the crusade against coal, estimating that West Elk only has about 15 to 20 years left—if they can survive the cases brought against them in court.
“They know their jobs and welfare are hinging on these lawsuits,” she said.
The shaky future of coal is very much felt by the miners. West Elk engineer Ben Godwin spoke about this uncertainty while touring a group of student reporters from Colorado College around the underground mine.
Clad in his navy jumpsuit, hard hat, rubber boots, and gloves, Godwin told them that it would be foolish for miners to plan for more than one year in the future.
The short-term nature of coal mining in the valley is why West Elk is struggling to get new workers, which creates an issue as their workforce retires, said Welt. She pointed out that they had already lost half of their engineer group to retirements in the last two years.
The disintegration of the coal mining industry in the valley also introduces uneasiness among residents regarding what will replace it.
Besides employing 360 people in West Elk operations, the mine contributes nearly 17.2 million dollars in taxes and royalties each year, said Welt.
One solution often suggested to miners is to transition to the solar industry. The coal engineers at West Elk, however, expressed that they were not enticed by the idea of trading their triple-digit salaries to be paid 15-20 dollars per hour as a solar panel technician.
Pete Mueller and Mary Marshall, employees at Solar Energy International (SEI) in Paonia, acknowledged this point while sitting in the sun, surrounded by solar panels on the organization’s campus.
“The pay scale is just really not the same,” said Mueller, agreeing that entry-level salaries for the two lines of work are distinct, but noting that designers, software programmers, engineers, salespeople, developers, and consultants within the solar industry have the potential of earning much more.
Marshall, who is the Program Manager for SEI’s Solar Forward program which provides consulting for solar development in rural communities, commented that the solar industry is gaining momentum and has a lot of room to expand.
If you work in solar, “you have something to celebrate every day,” said Marshall.
But the economic benefits of the solar industry “spans beyond job creation,” she said. Solar creates the opportunity for economic and energy independence—allowing money to circulate inside the community rather than be shipped internationally like coal is.
The North Fork Valley’s shift away from coal has not only impacted the way the community plans to sustain itself, but it is changing the overall character of the community.
Welt has observed the shut down of coal mines leading to multigenerational families moving away in search of stable work, with remaining members considering condensing the schools in Paonia and Hotchkiss.
She describes the newcomers of Paonia as an “eclectic blend” of hippies, artists, ranchers, and cowboys with different lifestyles than previous inhabitants.
“I don’t see the families and faces I used to see,” she said.