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.
Miners belong underground. They may not love the mine, but they are at home there, flourishing in a space that requires catlike senses, moving like ghosts in the darkness, soaking up the adrenaline rush from working in a place that can kill you whenever it wants. And it can kill you. There has never been a mine that couldn’t.
In August, six Utah miners died after a massive cave-in at Crandall Canyon Mine. Days later, three more men succumbed to the angry mountain as they tried to rescue the original six. In 2006, 12 West Virginia miners perished in an explosion blamed on lightning-ignited methane gas. And on January 6, Elk Creek Mine got the better of 26-year-old Jeremy Garcia.
It was a cool 50 degrees down below. Garcia, who had more than two years of experience, had been working an unremarkable shift since 7 a.m. As a utility man, he scurried around the mine, giving bolters lunch breaks and cleaning up after earlier operations. Around noon, after Garcia finished cleaning, he zipped over on a diesel-operated scoop to retrieve a bundle of wire mesh panels. Parking nearby, he cut loose the top banding strap. The wire mesh lurched off balance and fell, pinning him against the scoop’s fender. Garcia was alone in the blackness for 10 minutes before he was found. He had been crushed by the 1,500-pound bundle and died of mechanical asphyxiation.
Jim Cooper doesn’t like talking about that day. But he thinks about it. He has to. He deals in miners and miners’ families, more than 300 in all. Since 1979, Cooper has seen three mining losses. “Each one leaves you with the prayer that you can finish your career without ever having to experience that again,” he says. “These experiences give you a total feeling of being inadequate and at a loss at not being able to be enough to the victims nor to the survivors.”
Jeremy Garcia’s widow, Sara, understands that Cooper wants to be there for her. But these last 10 months still have been hard. Hard because she had known Jeremy since the eighth grade. Because he had already survived a tour in Afghanistan. Because he had been thinking of switching jobs. Hardest, perhaps, because he had mentioned taking the day off. However, she is coping. “It never really crossed my mind that it was dangerous,” she says. “I trusted Jeremy. He said it was a good job, he liked his job, and he liked the people he worked with.” It has been those people, Jim Cooper and the rest of the mining community, who have rallied around Sara and her two little girls with phone calls and visits since her husband’s death. “I had a good, long talk with Jim Cooper at Jeremy’s viewing,” Sara says. “I know his sympathy was sincere, and he went above and beyond to be kind to me. Everyone did. It’s been amazing to see all the guys—his coworkers—step up. It helps me remember that this wasn’t just a loss to our family, it affected everyone here.”
Garcia’s death wasn’t caused by an explosion or cave-in. It wasn’t sensational enough to warrant national headlines, and local outlets barely covered the story. The accident was more mundane than that, the type of mishap that happens in coal mines with anonymous regularity. But that lack of attention underlines how underappreciated and unfamiliar a coal miner’s job is to most people. For all miners—whether they’re in Colorado, West Virginia, Utah, or Pennsylvania—mining isn’t just a job. It’s a foregone conclusion, a blessing and a curse, a way of life. A way to keep the lights on.