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

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.

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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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Coal mining runs in Pagone’s veins just as it does for most miners—they do it because their daddy did it, and their granddaddy did it too. “Miners live their lives in a mythological world—something out of Dante,” says Jeff Goodell, who spent hundreds of hours with miners while researching for his book Big Coal. “And not only does it breed a kinship among current miners, it bonds all of them back through generations.” Coal mining is a brotherhood, the ultimate locker room. But most of this underground locker room doesn’t resemble the slick space of Pagone’s belt room. Although mining has gotten significantly safer and more sophisticated, digging coal still means putting human beings into a labyrinth of darkness miles under the earth’s crust.

Heading back to the truck, we leave the relative calm of the belt room and step into one of the larger main tunnels of the mine. Our headlamps illuminate only a few square feet at a time. It’s dark, damp, and cool; undulating, rocky coal floors rest beneath our feet. What looks like heavy chicken wire supports the walls and ceilings. A thick icing of white limestone dust covers every surface, stemming the spread of dangerously combustible coal dust. Every few hundred feet there is evidence of falling rock or a minor roof collapse. Ropes run along every wall with miniature plastic cones attached to them, a trail-of-breadcrumbs method of showing miners the way out after a catastrophic cave-in or explosion. I look at Pagone, grimacing at the thought. He says nothing about the rope but warns me to get the light out of his eyes when my headlamp momentarily obscures his vision. Rookie mistake.

As we drive deeper, toward where coal is actively being mined, Pagone explains everything from the mine’s ventilation system to how management keeps track of each worker inside. He tells me about the other guys, giving nicknames—Chewy, Barnyard, and Cherry—and telling me what each miner does. I’m listening, but I’m also acutely aware of how long we’ve been in the car. We drive for miles. The farther in, the more the dirt and rock and coal builds above our heads—nearly 2,500 feet of it in places. But as we get closer to the action, bright lights from the roaring mining equipment catch my eye, momentarily distracting me from the rising panic.

Unlike in the coal mining days of my grandfather and great-grandfather, there are no pick axes. Mining, and more specifically mining equipment, has evolved. Today, heavy machinery does the grunt work. The “continuous miner” is one of the big guns. A $1.8 million piece of machinery run by remote control, it’s a wide, flat contraption with a massive steamroller that’s attached at the front. The roller sports nasty claws that cut through walls of coal like a cat goes after a scratching post. As the miner gnashes away, bellowing cracks rise above the growl of the machines. “It’s just the earth settling,” says Pagone with a shrug and a tiny grin that reveals his amusement at my anxiety. Even with his unaffected demeanor, the groans of an objecting Mother Nature are unnerving.

The mine doesn’t intimidate Pagone. Loaded down with a hard hat and lamp, a self-rescuer breathing device, a methane gas sensor, safety glasses, giant steel-toed boots, and a tool belt, he floats among the machinery, moving through the mine as if he knows its every crevice. He climbs atop the continuous miner and sifts through the shards of black. Handing me a softball-size slab, he asks, “Can you believe that you can light a home with just that piece of rock?” I can’t. In fact, it’s surprising that more than 70 percent of Colorado’s electricity—and more than 50 percent of the electricity in the United States—still comes from coal.

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Coal mining is one of the last bastions of American blue-collar work. The industry still conjures images of hardworking, salt-of-the-earth men who bring little more into the mine each day than muscle, a lunch pail, and a prayer. Americans love to love coal miners—even if they are blissfully unaware of them until a tragic accident splashes across CNN. But like many things born of the industrial era, the coal industry and its miners face an uncertain future in a white-collar-friendly 21st century consumed with global warming.

Of course, the coal industry has always persevered, surviving the arrival of natural gas, the rise of rigorous safety and environmental regulations, unionization and miner strikes, and the near-daily operational challenges for which mining is infamous. It has endured because of global economic pressures and because, quite frankly, Americans have historically been more concerned with the balance of their energy bill than the state of the environment.

But times change. Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth bolstered growing support for the issue of climate change—one that has been thriving in Colorado but needed a shot in the arm around the rest of the country. Consumers now buy low-energy light bulbs. Grocery stores eschew plastic and paper for cloth bags. Toyota can hardly keep up with demand for its hybrid Prius. Neighbors chastise each other if they don’t see the purple recycling bin outside on trash day. King Coal should be worried.

Environmentalists argue that coal’s only real virtue is that it’s cheaper than the other available resources. And according to almost anyone, there are virtually no scenarios that will see coal getting cheaper still. Lack of railroad infrastructure, deeper mining, more expensive miner paychecks, costly emissions regulations—all of these things could lead to more expensive coal. And more expensive coal is undesirable coal, especially when burning the fossil fuel is responsible for more than a third of the country’s carbon emissions. The public has been happy to ignore coal’s dark side because it’s cheap, but will we continue to love it if it becomes expensive? Maybe not.

The Colorado coal industry is as vulnerable as any other, but it has one clear advantage over the black rock from Illinois or Ohio or West Virginia: It’s cleaner. Born from freshwater peat bogs—as opposed to saltwater marshes in the East—Colorado’s coal is a low-sulfur, low-ash, low-mercury, high-energy fossil fuel. Colorado coal, and Western coal in general, has been in high demand from power plants that need to meet Clean Air Act regulations. However, being cleaner may not matter if the price of coal skyrockets, as natural gas has, or if all Eastern power plants simultaneously install scrubbers, potentially lessening the need for cleaner coal. While scientists—and the coal industry itself—say it’s possible to make coal into a zero-emission fuel using a wide array of methods, almost none of these is in use today. But here in Colorado, there are nascent signs of institutional change: Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy has proposed the construction in Brush, Colorado, beginning in 2009, of the nation’s first power plant that converts coal to a cleaner-burning gas and captures carbon emissions.

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The United States has enough coal to fuel the country for 250 years, according to the National Mining Association (NMA). With few reliable energy alternatives and a dramatically increasing need to power up our iPods and plasma screens, our craving for more energy may well override our sense of environmental responsibility. “Coal’s role in our energy needs is huge right now,” says Luke Popovich, NMA spokesperson, “and it’s expected to grow larger.” According to Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association (CMA), Colorado’s coal production has increased by nearly 40 percent in the last 10 years, and coal’s overall share of American energy production is expected to increase from 50 percent today to 57 percent by 2025. As Eastern coal reserves thin out, utilities will look toward Wyoming, Colorado, and other states to fuel their plants with clean, cheap coal. According to the Energy Information Administration’s 2007 Annual Energy Outlook, by 2030 nearly 68 percent of domestic coal will come from states west of the Mississippi River.

For mine operators like Jim Cooper, the changes may mean having to squeeze blood from a stone by upping production, hiring and training new workers, and trying to keep his mine safe while still producing at maximum capacity. Cooper and his colleagues will also have to keep one eye on the politics of coal to gauge how long he may or may not be in business. For miners like Pagone, the situation’s a bit different. Although coal mining pays relatively well, that’s not why he does it. “I like a good challenge,” he says. “The scope of the work is generally the same, but on a daily basis something is always going to be different, going to be a test, an adventure.” But in this industry, Pagone always has to worry about whether he’ll have a job next week. “I don’t really think about what the reason will be for being out of a job, but I’m always thinking what I would do if coal died,” he says. “It’s always on your mind.”

Our energy conundrum—needing more but wanting less environmental fallout from it—has given the coal industry what it wants: time. Time to keep digging and burning without putting too much sweat equity into figuring out how to make coal environmentally friendly. The sentiment seems to be, why change when things are going so well for coal right now? “Green power—biofuels, wind, solar—is great to meet peaking demand, but right now coal has to stay in the energy mix for us to continue to meet our energy needs,” Popovich says, adding that it’s “really fanciful” to think that simply throwing money at renewable fuels will create an energy infrastructure adequate enough to replace coal within a decade or two. “People don’t understand how little energy is currently generated by renewables and what an enormous increase and change in our energy infrastructure you would be asking the country to undergo,” he says. “People get excited about green power and they forget the real world.” It’s an approach that angers impatient environmentalists, who counter that the coal industry’s lengthy stall tactics only delay the development of cleaner technologies.

Whether production increases dramatically to meet energy needs or demand drops because of environmental backlash, miners suffer the consequences. Increasing production means harder hours underground, more dangerous conditions, and a desperate need for more miners. If the pendulum swings the other way, miners may be out of a job altogether. “If coal is going to have a sustainable future and keep these mining jobs, the industry is going to have to come to grips openly, frankly, and quickly that global warming is a huge problem,” author Jeff Goodell says. “Unless they figure out a way to deal with it, these mines are going to go out of business. And in that sense, these miners are getting screwed by their own industry.”

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Despite the increased scrutiny, the coal industry soldiers on. “Clearly, coal is having a resurgence,” Popovich says, “but it has environmental issues we need to deal with. And we are dealing with it. But it will take time. If Congress were to mandate very strict emissions reductions in the next couple of years, it would send coal into a tailspin. But if we are patient, we could see technologies in place in 10 to 12 years that could make coal a near zero-emissions fuel.”

Which means American miners will likely continue to mine coal for many years to come, but even that could create problems. According to NMA estimates, the nation will need nearly 50,000 new coal miners in the next decade to meet increasing demand for energy and to replace the thousands of Baby Boomer miners who are reaching retirement age. During coal’s down years, engineering schools closed their mining departments, miners moved to cities looking for jobs, and the country lost an entire generation of miners. “We are simply lacking miners who are from 25 to 40 years old,” Popovich says.

The NMA says that the industry is developing workforce growth initiatives, marketing in noncoal regions, targeting depressed sectors like the auto industry in Michigan, and holding job fairs on the outskirts of Appalachia. Here in Colorado, the competition for new miners is no different. “We pay our miners very well—about $93,000 per year in pay and benefits—but production here in Colorado will still be impacted by our ability to attract and hire new miners,” says CMA’s Sanderson. In Colorado, however, we do have at least a partial advantage: The Colorado School of Mines is one of only 12 institutions nationwide to still offer bachelor of mining degrees and touts the largest mining graduate program in the country.

Attracting workers to the coal mines—where more than 100,000 people have died since 1900—is no easy task. Although mining jobs have dropped out of the top 10 most dangerous professions, fatalities have decreased by 92 percent since 1970, and injuries have declined by nearly 70 percent since 1990, the coal industry still suffers from a negative public perception, an unfortunate past, and intense media coverage that spikes only after a catastrophe. “You watch Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel and there’s a romance with that danger,” Sanderson says. “You don’t see Congress jumping on the fishing industry. But if there’s an accident in a coal mine it’s all over CNN.”

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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.

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