‘Watching the ground move’
June 5, 2010
Editor's note: This is the second part of a four-part series on the area's coal mining industry. The third part will appear in the June 19 Saturday Morning Press.
George Connelly, 55, puts in anywhere from a day to three days of work preparing a blast pattern at Trapper Mining Co.
With the flick of a switch, he watches the cumulative effort of that work be destroyed in less than two seconds.
"That makes you very happy," he said.
Connelly, one of two blasters at Trapper, has been working on the blasting crew since 1983 and in other positions at the mine since 1978.
He contends that his job is the most dangerous occupation at a coal mine. The danger comes from working with a large amount of explosives and being in pits surrounded by walls of rock and dirt.
But, while the job is potentially hazardous, Connelly said he enjoys his work.
"I like watching the ground move," he said
As a blaster, Connelly oversees a crew of two blast helpers. His crew is one of two blasting crews at Trapper that, through explosives, displace large amounts of rock and soil to unearth coal seams for mining.
The job, Connelly contends, can be physically and mentally demanding, but also fulfilling.
His days consist of overseeing and helping organize blasting operations, filling out large amounts of paperwork for each blast triggered, and constantly being aware of his crew's safety, he said.
"You just do it," Connelly said. "It's just one of those things that — well I'd say you get used to it, but you don't."
Connelly moved to Craig from Las Vegas when he was 22 and started working at Trapper shortly after.
"I grew up here," he said.
During his time at Trapper, Connelly has developed pride in his work.
"We try to do it good … and as best as we can," he said. "They dig it down to the coal and that's what makes the world go 'round. That is what pays the bills, cuts the paychecks … getting to that coal."
According to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, Trapper produced about 156,177 tons of coal in March, and 456,498 tons so far in 2010.
It is the sixth-highest producing mine in the state.
Connelly and the rest of the Trapper blasting crew are at the forefront of mine operations, said Ray DuBois, Trapper president and general manager.
In essence, the blasting and drilling crews set the pace for Trapper's coal production.
"If it's not blasted, it can't be dug," DuBois said.
To uncover coal seams, the blasting crew will work an area of virgin topsoil, called overburden, or the rock between coal seams, called parting.
Trapper engineers map the area into a pattern to be drilled and prepared for blasting.
One pattern can contain up to several hundred holes depending on the size of the pattern.
After 10-inch holes are drilled, the blasting crews fill them with explosive powder, wire the explosives, and trigger the blast.
The holes are drilled to the coal seam in strategic locations to ensure proper fragmentation. The depth of the holes can range from six to 120 feet deep, depending on where the coal seam runs underneath the pattern.
The blasting crew starts preparing the holes by filling them in with a small layer of dirt to protect the coal from the blast.
Then, an explosive booster, similar to TNT, is lowered into the hole.
The hole is then filled with explosive powder determined by the density of the rock being blasted and the depth of the hole.
The rest of the hole is then back filled with dirt to ensure the blast spreads horizontally throughout the pattern, instead of vertically into the air.
"There is a lot that goes into them," Trapper blaster Kraig Copeland said. "It isn't just putting some powder in the ground. These blasts are all engineered. … It's not just going out there and blowing something up."
Once the blast has been triggered, a combination of a dragline and front-end loaders remove the blasted material — called spoils — from the area to allow other crews to harvest the exposed coal.
The blasting crew usually prepares and triggers about one blast per day, but is sometimes called on to conduct two or three smaller blasts in a day.
'Watching dirt fly'
Glenda Bellio, a blast helper who has worked at Trapper for about seven years, said her job is one that "everyone wants to do."
"What is not interesting about blowing something up?" she said.
But, the job isn't what most people think, she added.
"Once you get into it, it's fairly repetitive," Bellio said. "There is not a lot of new stuff thrown at you. It's a case of knowing the situation from day to day."
However, the repetitive nature of the job is interrupted by the brief excitement of a blast, she said.
For Bellio, one of the best parts of the blast is not just seeing it, but rather feeling it.
"We have had shots where you can see the compression wave coming down the pit and you can feel it hit you as it went by," she said. "It's pretty amazing. We have had shots where we have moved a million cubic yards of dirt."
After years of watching shots, Connelly said there are still some blasts that get his blood pumping.
"The blast helper and I … when we set off that shot, were like, 'Oh, man, that was so cool,' and I've been doing this a lot," he said.
Copeland, who has worked at Trapper for 17 years, including nine on the blasting crew, said he enjoys the job because of the independent nature of the work.
"Essentially, a lot of times you are on your own," he said. "Somebody is not looking over your shoulder all the time.
"In some ways, it is rewarding because you can see the results of your work."
'Everybody goes home safe'
Copeland said blasting is about being safe rather than impressive.
"In reality, when you shoot something, you don't want a big spectacular blast," he said. "We are going for containment. We don't like it when we have fly rock."
If a hole is overloaded with explosives, debris can be hurled in the air, he said.
"We have had a lot of cheap thrills," Connelly said. "We have been chased (by) fly rock and that's not fun. That's when people get hurt."
Connelly said the death of Joe Koonce, a Trapper blast helper who was killed in an accident in 1999, constantly reminds him of the importance of being safe.
"Sometimes I think about that it could have been anyone, could have been me," he said. "…You think about it all the time, really."
Copeland takes pride in maintaining a safe working environment.
"When we don't hurt anybody, we don't damage anything, (and) everybody goes home safe at the end of the day, we know we got our job done," Copeland said. "There is a lot of risk involved. I think it has been classified as the most dangerous job (at a coal mine)."
Bellio said when she first started working on the blasting crew, she was "nervous as all get out."
"You're thinking, 'Oh my god, if I do something wrong, I am toast' because you are walking on thousands of pounds of explosives," she said.
But with time, Bellio said she became more comfortable working on the blast pattern and with the rest of the blasting crew.
DuBois said workers on the blast crew "function as one," which helps keep them safe.
"They rely on each other tremendously … just to get the work done and for the safety of each other," he said. "Blasting is inherently safe with today's technology, but … you have to use things properly."
'Ice, snow, mud and rain'
Remaining safe on the job isn't just reserved for blasting work, DuBois said.
"When I talk about safety, it's not just the inherent dangers associated with blasting, but the conditions they work in — the ice, snow, mud and rain."
Bellio said her ability to work efficiently is influenced by the weather.
"When you are sloping through mud that's mid-shin deep and then snow that's up to your knees on top of it and trying to get equipment in and out and stay within certain boundaries … it doesn't make your job easy," she said.
Bad weather helps Bellio appreciate good weather, she said.
"If you get a nice day, the ground is nice and solid and you're not fighting the weather, it just whips through nice and it's like a day in the park," she said.
Up on the hill
For Connelly, one of the main reasons he enjoys the job is being outside on the hills just south of Craig, overlooking the "beautiful valley."
"I've watched two bull elk fight," he said. "I've watched an eagle get a rabbit and leave it on the ground for its eaglets. I've watched coyotes run into berms and catch rabbits in mid-air. I've almost walked on baby antelope.
"You know Las Vegas didn't have anything like that. It's just beautiful."
Copeland said there is just as much, if not more wildlife around Trapper "than any place you could drive to."
"It's something special to see the wildlife, the deer, the antelope," he said. "You see a lot of wildlife out there so you're not really disturbing the ecosystem the way people think."
Bellio said one of the main things she enjoys is watching the sunrise over Craig and the Yampa Valley.
"The fact that we work from six until four means we are up there at sunup most of the time, and there is nothing more amazing than a winter sunrise," she said. "Every day it's different. The blues and the pinks that roll in across this valley are just incredible."