Underground Network

Coal Mining
Name Esmeralda Bodine
Age 49
Title Underground mine foreman, Oxbow Mining LLC, Elk Creek Mine
On the job Three years
Location Somerset
Typical mining wages $29 per hour
Half a mile below the surface of the earth, Esmeralda Bodine directs a crew of men in the bowels of one of Colorado’s largest coal mines. That could mean adjusting the mine’s ventilation system to mitigate fumes, making sure the water discharge system is pumping out water, or constructing access roads, bridges, and seals between mined areas and work zones. Sometimes, she disperses a layer of rock dust inside the mine, which prevents highly combustible coal dust from exploding.

The Elk Creek Mine produced nearly three million tons of coal in 2012—enough to provide almost 570,000 customers with electricity for a year. But that bevy of raw energy doesn’t come without sacrifice. Sixty-eight injuries were reported in Colorado coal mines last year, nine of them at Elk Creek, and 19 coal miners across the country perished on the job in 2012. (There have only been three reported coal mining deaths in Colorado in the past decade; one of them happened to be at Elk Creek.) Earlier this year, the mine shut down for more than a month when dangerously elevated levels of carbon monoxide were detected. And last winter, heavy snow knocked out a transformer and a ventilation fan, resulting in a minewide evacuation.

Bodine rises at 4 a.m. to commute from Hotchkiss; by 6:30 a.m. she’s maneuvering a Dodge pickup into the mine. She’s never found her five-foot stature at odds with the job’s physical demands. If she can’t lift something, she simply asks for help. “We train in everything from the proper way to climb a ladder to the right way to shovel coal onto a belt,” Bodine says. “The only thing more important than going to work is going home to your family.”

Bodine says she doesn’t mind the fine layer of coal dust that settles on her clothes. She knows that every shift is helping someone 300 miles away flip a light switch. And she doesn’t let the media hype about the dangers of mining get in her head. “I just go to work,” she says. “You can’t live your life that way, wondering.”

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