Feature

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

 

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. 

 

November 2007

 

Days later, Elk Creek Mine is once again spitting out coal. Nearly 13,000 tons stream out of the mine on any given day, much of it rail-bound for Eastern power plants that pump out megawatts of electricity to states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. In the last 33 years, America’s insatiable need for energy has increased by 111 percent, a number that’s expected to continue to trend upward. But there is a mounting resistance to coal’s dirty side. It’s an altercation that’s been simmering in sterile boardrooms, government committees, and Congress over the past few years, and it may come to a rolling boil sooner than coal insiders think—or are prepared to deal with.

Ed Pagone, Elk Creek’s belt coordinator and a veteran Colorado miner, doesn’t seem terribly worried about Congress today as he proudly explains how his extensive network of conveyors swiftly delivers the coal out of the mine to the surface. He’s thinking about coal, lots of beautiful black coal—and how he’s going to help get it out of the mine as quickly as possible. I watch as he pulls up a detailed systems-analysis page on a touch-screen computer. Smiling sheepishly, he says, “This thing’s got everything including Microsoft Office, but I really wish I could figure out a way to get the Internet down here.” Down here is a white-walled room with a cement floor, fluorescent lighting, high ceilings, and two doors. Down here is 1,500 feet underground.

The surroundings stand in stark contrast to the mines I’m familiar with. As a coal miner’s granddaughter born and bred in the coal-ravaged hills of West Virginia, I was expecting to see low-slung roofs, a foot of standing water, and big, brawny men duck-walking while digging at seams of buried sunshine. I was expecting to see miners filling lines of small cars—not conveyors—with coal.

But not so out here. Western underground mines do not suffer from the same lean coal seams as mines in Appalachia. The 10-foot ceilings at Elk Creek are evidence of substantial bands of coal—a miner’s best friend. Not only can a six-foot-tall man stand up straight while he works, he can drive to the office in a Dodge pickup, which is how Pagone and I are making our way underground, through the tunnels of Elk Creek.

At 37 years old, my chauffeur wears three days’ worth of facial hair, smiles easily, has piercing blue eyes behind his safety glasses, and vaguely resembles Stephen Baldwin. Black smudges tattoo his face. Pagone drinks a Dixie cup of stale coffee and tells me about being a third-generation coal miner. Even a few of his uncles were miners, one of whom died 15 years ago in a mine just up the road. He says he didn’t go to college—but quickly points out that he couldn’t have imagined doing anything else anyway.

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