Colorado coal mining sits at a crossroads. Skyrocketing demand and potential environmental regulations may force coal insiders to make difficult decisions about the industry’s future—and the fate of the 2,200 Coloradans who venture deep into the earth to mine the black gold.
If Jim Cooper ever needed a cigarette, he needs one now. Leaning back in his desk chair, he takes off his large, square, wire-rimmed glasses and rubs his eyes. His deep-set wrinkles dig even farther into his leathery skin. Today’s the kind of day that makes being a mine operator one of the most trying careers a man could want. Having been around coal mines for 35 years, Cooper ought to know. He’s been with Oxbow Mining’s Elk Creek Mine only since 2000, but he’s been pulling coal out of Colorado’s Western Slope since 1979.
The mine burrows into the western side of McClure Pass, looming darkly over the old mining town of Somerset. Some might say the mountain of freshly mined coal tarnishes the otherwise scenic valley along Colorado Highway 133. But the mound of shiny black rock is somehow beautiful in its own right, almost striking in the same way as lightning or fire or the blue glow from an electrical outlet—beautiful like any kind of pure energy.
That’s precisely what they’re mining at Elk Creek Mine: energy. As much as 6.5 million tons per year of low-sulfur, low-mercury, high-powered, jet-black bituminous coal. The mine usually ranks among the 15 most productive in the country, contributing greatly to Colorado’s standing as the seventh-largest producer of coal in the United States—an interesting little tidbit, considering that many Coloradans have no idea coal mines even exist here, or that coal still provides the majority of our energy. Or that more than 80,000 miners nationwide—men and women who live and die by the booms and busts of the coal industry—still dive into the deep to harvest that energy from the earth. Yet if you live in Colorado, three out of every four times you flip a light switch, that yellow radiance is powered by coal and coal miners.
But the idea of running a highly prolific, lucrative mine rich with some of the planet’s cleanest-burning coal isn’t on Cooper’s mind today. It’s Saturday, January 6, 2007, and the dry-erase board in the miners’ lamphouse that tallies the number of consecutive “accident-free days” now reads a soul-crushing “0.” After dealing with inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration and officials from Delta County for most of the day, Cooper still has one more thing to take care of: He has to visit a newly widowed young woman and her two children.