(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a four-part series on the area’s coal mining industry. The second part will publish in the June 5 Saturday Morning Press.)
Retired coal miner and Craig resident Don Laib spent 29 years working for Trapper Mining Co. in Craig.
He takes pride in that fact.
“I look up at the mine and I realize where I used to work,” he said. “It’s 20 below zero and it’s snowing and it’s cold. I see that, and I think about the guys that are up there working.
“I care about them. I care about their safety.”
Over the years, Laib has seen the coal industry through its ups and downs. He was laid off twice, but came back both times.
Laib uses one word to describe the coal industry in Moffat County — “vital.”
“If we didn’t have any coal mines, we wouldn’t have the power plant, either,” Laib said. “(Craig) would basically be a ghost town. This is the mainstream, this is the life blood of this area … mining and the power plant.”
According to the Moffat County Assessor’s Office, Trapper and Colowyo Coal Co. combined to provide 8.5 percent of taxes collected in the county in 2009. Colowyo was the third-leading taxpayer in the county in 2009, and Trapper was eighth.
Twentymile, which is located in Routt County but employs many Moffat County residents, is Routt’s largest tax provider, and accounts for 5.3 percent of all taxes collected in Routt.
Colowyo General Manager Steve Gili said he doesn’t know if any industry other than coal could support the Craig and Moffat County economy.
“Moffat County is a pretty good place to put a coal mine,” he said. “It’s got the people who want to work there. It’s not overly populated so the impacts of the coal mine aren’t as much as if you slapped one of these in downtown Denver.
“Unless there is something to take (its) place that people want to do, that can put the same level of income in their pockets, it’s a huge impact to this town.”
Twentymile, an underground mine which uses remote control longwall technology, produced 7.8 million tons of coal in 2009. The mine began operations in 1983, and currently employs about 550 people, according to information from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
Colowyo, an open-pit surface mine, produced 3.4 million tons of coal in 2009. The mine began producing coal using its current approach in 1977, and employs about 280 people.
Trapper, also an open-pit surface mine, produced 2.1million tons of coal last year. Trapper began producing coal in 1977 and currently employs about 150 people.
The three mines combined to produce about 47 percent of the state’s total coal output of 28.5 million tons in 2009, Colorado Mining Association president Stuart Sanderson said.
Of the coal produced last year, 27 percent, or 3.6 million tons, was sold out of state, Sanderson said.
The rest of the coal produced from the three mines is sold to power plants within Colorado.
“These instate markets are really important to the industry because it is the bedrock on which you rest,” Sanderson said. “… The out of state markets are just not as reliable.”
The fiery destination
Tri-State Generation & Transmission’s Craig Station provides a steady home for Moffat County coal.
The Craig Station, a 1,304-megawatt, coal-fired power plant, employs 300 people full-time.
Construction of the Craig Station began in the 1970s. The plant has three units. Unit two went online in 1979, unit one in 1980 and unit three in 1984.
The power plant currently has two long-term coal contracts with Trapper and Colowyo to supply it with coal, plant manager Rick Johnson said.
However, the plant burns more coal than the contracts in place with Trapper and Colowyo can provide, Johnson said.
Almost all of Colowyo’s coal goes to the Craig Station, said Mark Roberts, director of commercial planning and business development for Rio Tinto, which owns Colowyo.
Trapper provides all of its coal to the Craig Station, Tri State communications manager Jim Van Someren said.
According to the county assessor’s office, Craig Station provides 26 percent of all taxes collected in the county.
‘A good, honest day’s work’
Hundreds of Moffat County residents are employed between coal mines and the power plant, not to mention the many jobs provided through other supporting industries.
Kevin Southard, a miner who works at Twentymile in monorail recovery, said the coal industry provides good, well-paying jobs that “keeps the family afloat.”
But, Southard said it is not just the money that keeps him at the mine.
“It is mostly just the job,” he said. “It is enjoyable, plus it is one of the best things around here unless you are a doctor or something. It’s basically all there is here. You can go work in the mines, or go to college.”
Michael Kirby is an electrician nearing his second year at Colowyo and is a fourth-generation coal miner.
Kirby contends mining is in his blood.
“The pay is good, the benefits are great,” he said.
Moreover, Kirby enjoys the sense of family many coal miners share.
“You’ve got the camaraderie of your fellow workers,” he said. “It is like a second family. You spend just as much time, if not more, with your fellow workers than you do with your kids at home … you become a tight-knit family out there.”
Don Kirby, Michael’s father, has been working at Twentymile for 36 years. Currently he is a supervisor on the surface crew, but Don spent 11 years mining underground.
Michael, who worked at Twentymile for six-and-a-half years before going to Colowyo, said he thinks his dad is proud to see his son working for a coal mine.
“I think every parent wishes better of their kids, but I know he was happy to see me get out from underground,” Michael said.
Don said he wanted Michael to “follow his dreams and be what he wanted to be,” but he wasn’t disappointed that Michael decided to work at a coal mine.
“It has always been a good paying job,” Don said. “You could raise a family doing it pretty easy. It puts a lot of people to work.”
Terry Gillett, a Craig resident and coal miner who works on the longwall bull gang for Twentymile, said he relies on his job to support his wife and four children.
Gillett never thought he would be a coal miner, but is happy where he is now.
“It is just a good, honest day’s work to tell you the truth,” he said.
Statistics reinforce safety practices working
A large part of that “honest day’s work” includes being mindful of safety while on the job, Gillett said.
Gillett believes Twentymile is a safe company to work for, but working underground sometimes worries him.
“I do worry, but I do put a lot of the faith upstairs,” Gillett said.
And Gillett’s family worries for his safety, as well.
“We are a very religious family and we pray every day for … not just my safety, but for all of the coal miners that are out there,” he said.
According to the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, Colowyo had no injuries or deaths in 2009. Twentymile reported 29 injuries and had no fatalities. Trapper reported 13 injuries and also had no fatalities.
Since at least 2001, there have been no fatalities at the three mines.
For Southard, working in an underground mine is about the “ifs.”
“Something breaks or the roof caves in, rivets pop out, you never know,” he said. “Fire, floods, gasses, those are the ‘what ifs’ to me.”
Southard tries to stay focused on the task at hand while working, but the “ifs” remain in the “back of your head.”
“You do your part and hopefully the guys around you are doing their part, then you’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said.
Recently, the Colorado coal industry has faced uncertainty with the passing of Colorado House Bill 10-1365, also known as the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act.
The bill is aimed at converting several coal-fired Front Range power plants to natural gas.
Johnson said the bill targets Western Slope area coal for not being a clean energy source, but he can’t understand why.
“Our coal mines, our power plants … operate in an environmentally sound manner,” he said. “We produce low cost, clean, reliable energy for our consumers.”
Johnson said Craig Station has been upgrading emissions-reducing technology for several years.
“We have good pollution control technology on all three units here,” he said.
Those pollution control technologies include low nitrous oxide coal burners with over-fire air, which reduces nitrous oxide emissions. The plant also uses wet and dry scrubbers, which reduce sulfur dioxide emissions and bag houses, which remove particulates.
Ray DuBois, president and general manager of Trapper, said in addition to clean burning practices, the coal mined in Northwest Colorado is naturally clean considering its low sulfur content.
DuBois said the coal industry is making a push to burn coal cleaner, despite what some may think.
“The burning of coal has increased dramatically over the last several decades, while the total emissions have gone down,” he said.
Gili said coal mining can also be done in an environmentally-friendly way and most coal miners want to be “good stewards of the land.”
“The people that work at the coal mine, they love the environment just as much as the people on the Front Range do,” Gili said. “They don’t want to see the land destroyed. They don’t want to see deer and elk being run off the land.”
An area’s pride
Laib contends Craig Station and the local coal mines are a source of pride for many Northwest Colorado residents.
“They are proud of what this area has become because of the plant and the mines,” he said.
But, that pride doesn’t just come from what the mines have provided for the community, but also from residents’ independent nature.
“I think the people here are proud because we are not depending on someone else, in some other state, or some other part of the country to take care of our energy needs,” he said. “We are self-reliant. Craig is pretty isolated. That is what makes the people in this area proud of living here and what we have accomplished through mining.”
Michael Kirby said the sense of pride and accomplishment he gets from his job comes from mining’s history.
“It just comes from our roots,” he said. “Way back from our grandfathers and when they mined it. It’s just always been ‘work hard for your dollar.’”
Don Kirby said the pride is in the hard work.
“A lot of people have a lot of conveniences nowadays because of the people that are out there getting that coal, and our government now is trying to shut that down and make things a little bit harder for the people that do get the coal,” he said.
But, a career of hard work considered, Don said he would do it all over again.
“Yeah, it’s been a good life,” he said. “I’ve had fun doing the work that I do. Sometimes I’ve worked very hard and that’s not so fun, but in the end it has been a good life.”