Twentymile Coal Company: Digging below the surface | CraigDailyPress.com

Twentymile Coal Company: Digging below the surface

New coal beckons but future demand uncertain for underground mine

Lauren Blair

For all the complex, highly engineered machinery required to run an underground mine, it's a Dodge four-wheel-drive pickup truck that delivers miners to their work site every day deep under the earth at Twentymile Coal Company's Foidel Creek Mine — commonly referred to as Twentymile.

Miners arrive for the start of their shifts at 6 a.m. and, following crew meetings, load into the pickups to make the 30 to 45 minute drive to the longwall operation 1,300 feet underground.

Twentymile employs approximately 345 people in addition to 30 contractors that run the state's most productive coal-mining operation, which sits underneath 20,000 acres in Routt County near Hayden.

Preceded by a surface mine also by the name of Foidel Creek Mine, which began extracting coal in the area in the late 1950s, the mine now known as Twentymile went underground in 1983.

"It got to about a 12 to 1 strip ratio," said Twentymile General Manager Pat Sollars, who has worked at the mine for over 25 years. "It was not economical to do a surface mine operation. They had to remove 12 layers of rock in order to get to one layer of coal."

After going underground, Twentymile has passed through several hands throughout its more than 30-year life and was purchased by Peabody Energy in 2005.

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Peabody has over 50 years of history in the area, according to mining history buff and Colorado Northwestern Community College Surface Mine Safety Instructor Ed Koucherik.

Previously known as Peabody Coal Company, it has owned and operated mines in the Yampa Valley region since the mid 1960s, including the Wolf Creek strip mine and the Seneca II and Yoast strip mines, which both closed in 2005.

Peabody Energy is now the world's largest private-sector coal company, doing $7 billion in sales in 2013 with 251.7 million tons of coal sold for use in producing power and making steel. The company operates 27 mines in the United States and Australia and has a growing presence in countries like China, Indonesia and India.

Twentymile is the sole supplier of coal to Hayden Station, supplying 1.8 million tons per year to fuel the coal-fired power plant owned by Xcel Energy, which supplies power to Yampa Valley residents via Yampa Valley Electric Association.

Twentymile also has a contract with Public Service of Colorado in Denver through 2017, at which point PSCO will convert to natural gas, according to Sollars. Other customers include Monsanto, industrial utilities in Texas, and customers in the southeastern U.S., Hawaii and Europe.

Production levels at Twentymile have consistently remained between 7 and 8 million tons for the past five years, down from production levels upwards of 8 million tons between 2003 and 2008, which reached a peak of 9.4 million tons in 2005, according to numbers from the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

The August 2014 Fast Facts report from Yampa Valley Data Partners revealed that as of June, Twentymile's production levels were up 17 percent compared with June 2013, putting it on target to match or exceed 2013's production of 7.2 million tons of coal.

Twentymile is Colorado's most productive coal mine, and accounted for 30 percent of the state's total coal production in 2013 according to data from CDRMS compiled by YVDP.

"There's enough coal mined at Twentymile to power one third of the homes in Colorado," Sollars said.

Additionally, data compiled by YVDP shows that Twentymile provides some of the highest wages in the area, paying more than double the wages of the average job in Routt County.

In Moffat County, Peabody was the largest employer of residents in 2013, and mining accounted for more than 18 percent of the total labor income, according to YVDP.

Dennis Bouwens, who retired from Twentymile last year after 25 years at the mine and 45 years in the mining industry, affirmed that it was good work and described his co-workers as family.

"It takes a certain kind of person to be a coal miner," Bouwens said. "It's knowing that you're doing a job that's going to benefit others because it's going to help them get electricity. It's the satisfaction of doing a job well done that a lot of people don't want to do."

Moffat and Routt counties rank second and third in the state for the highest number of jobs provided by the mining industry. When considering the multiplier effect of the mining industry on area jobs, nearly one in every five jobs in Moffat County and one in every ten in Routt is attributable to area coal mines, according to YVDP.

"We use a lot of the companies in Craig for our materials supplies and services," Sollars said. "There are a lot of people we depend on."

However, employment numbers are currently dropping at Twentymile, down nearly 40 percent from five years ago. The mine also cut 47 contract positions at the beginning of the year, according to The Steamboat Pilot and Today, citing customer demand as the reason for the reduction.

Part of the reason for the high employment numbers back in 2009, Sollars explained, had to do with the mine plan, which included developing two new sections for future mining and required extra manpower.

Peabody developed and began mining the adjoining Sage Creek mine in 2012 with the intention of transitioning full production to the new mine by 2015, according to the Pilot. However, the timeline has been pushed back and the mine has sat idle with no definite plans in place for when it will resume.

Fluctuations in the industry are inevitable, with operations dependent on the demand for coal. But in recent years, demand has been affected by statewide regulations such as the Renewable Energy Standard, which requires that 20 to 30 percent of energy needs be met by renewable sources by 2020, and the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act passed in 2010.

Currently, coal miners and industry professionals are worried about the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Clean Power Plan, which, if passed, would take effect in 2015.

"Proposed regulations will make energy more scarce and more expensive without any material improvement in emissions," Peabody said in a press release in June.

In addition to Sage Creek, Twentymile was permitted in 2007 to begin explorations of the Wolf Creek seam, approximately 150 feet below the Wadge seam that it is currently mining, according to CDRMS. The new seam is approximately 25 feet in depth compared to the 9-foot-deep Wadge seam.

"Exploration is pretty much complete," Sollars said. "We've identified the reserves, we've identified the quality. We've started initial slopes down into that reserves. The market really determines how we move the mine."

In sum, there is no shortage of accessible coal for Twentymile Coal Company to mine, though an updated report from CDRMS indicates that Twentymile predicts coal extraction from the Wadge seam to end in 2016. By all accounts, the market will have the final word on the future of their mining operations.

"The industry's given me a good paying job and let me raise my family, and I hope it still survives with everything that's going on," Bouwens said.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com.

Twentymile by the numbers

$47.3 million in wages and benefits paid to Twentymile’s 455 employees in 2013

7.2 million tons of coal mined from beneath 20,000 acres of land in 2013

Began mining in 1983

Source: Peabody Energy, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment