Wisdom from work | CraigDailyPress.com

Wisdom from work

Longtime Tri-State employees reflect on three-plus decades at Craig station

Thirty-plus years is a long time to remain with one company, no matter the industry.

In the last month, Tri-State Generation and Transmission saw two key long-time employees call it a career after reaching the retirement milestone of 65 years old, which should start becoming the norm for an industry and a company under attack from the Front Range.

Former Craig Station Plant Manager Rich Thompson retired March 2 from Tri-State after 32 years, while Alicia Walz retired March 26 after 31 years with Tri-State, the last 17 years of which she served as a scrubber board operator, helping Tri-State maintain air quality compliance.

The loss of the two long-time employees to retirement could be a sign of things to come as those nearing retirement age are calling it a career due to the impending transition away from coal in the state of Colorado.

Walz said her retirement really wasn’t affected by the transition away from coal. However, she was very vocal about what’s coming for Moffat County and the workers at Craig Station and the surrounding coal mines.

“I turned 65 and I’ve been out there quite awhile,” Walz said. “I thought with my age that it was a good time to leave. It was a very hard decision; I was doing shift work for a lot of years. I am getting older, and it’s time. The shift work was getting harder. The people…there’s a lot of good people out there. People are just trying to make an income and a living for their families.”

“That station has been an income and a life for this community, so to go under all at once is going to be tough to see,” Walz added. “They need to look at Denver more than us. Our emissions are excellent compared to what it is on the Front Range. Look at the cars in Denver, look at the pollution. This is just a political game to shut down the coal-fired power plants.”

For Thompson, Tri-State has been a way of life. Thirty-two years is a long time, even longer when you consider the number of jobs Thompson held before being elevated to plant manager seven years ago.

For years, Thompson had a goal in mind of turning 62 years old and calling it a career. In October 2020, Thompson turned 62, which started the process of him retiring.

After 32 years, Thompson was ready to retire, but walking away from something he’s known his whole life was tough, especially when considering the family atmosphere Tri-State has created over the years.

“I have spent my whole career working within utilities in the coal-fired industry; I could see that it was a large, extended family,” Thompson said. “That’s why you see people out there that are reaching 45 years of employment at the same facility and worked a number of different jobs and roles in Craig Station. People come to Craig Station, and after they work there for awhile, they realize it’s a good place to work as any, with good opportunities and challenges, and something new to work on constantly. It never gets dull.”

Knowing what employment at Tri-State and Craig Station provided them over the years, both Thompson and Walz hold the company and the industry in high regards.

That’s why they’re worried about their friends and family within the company knowing what’s to come.

Thompson could read the writing on the wall a few years ago and started urging fellow employees to be prepared for the future. For many who will hit retirement age well before the retirement of Craig Station, there’s not much to worry about due to the benefits through Tri-State’s retirement package.

Others who aren’t nearing retirement age, or are just getting started in the industry have much more to worry about, as they’ll likely have to transition to new careers and new industries.

“I held a series of meetings once I could see a little bit of what the future was looking like and where the company was going to go,” Thompson said. “You look at a summation of all the facts out there and I tried to take that back to all my people at Craig Station, from economics, CO-2 concerns, climate change to environmental changes that are being seen and blaming the coal-fire generation.

“I told employees that you all need to start preparing for the future. What are you going to do? You don’t want to sit here on your hands at the last minute,” Thompson added. “You want to be prepared, have your finances in control, look into pursuing a different career and education, look at different opportunities; you want to be mobile. Everything you can possibly put in place ready to go, be prepared.”

Three units at Craig Generating Station will be closed by 2030.

So far, Colorado Northwestern Community College has reached out and started offering programs for workers looking to transition, while Tri-State has poured money into helping employees pursue an education in a different field.

“It’s come to the point where they don’t have the choice though,” Walz added. “What are they going to do? Some of these young guys, this is what they were planning on doing their entire lives. Now, it’s going away and is out of their control; there’s nothing in Craig to replace what Tri-State can provide and has done for this community. It’s sad…very sad. I got the better part of Tri-State and the power plant.”

Unfortunately, there’s not much Moffat County can do to stop the retirement of Craig Station as politicians on the Front Range continue to try and speed up the process with the backing of environmental groups.

Part of the problem with that, according to Thompson, is the lack of education and understanding surrounding coal.

“There’s a lot on the education side of things that people don’t realize. If you get into a discussion about the science, any environmentalist is going to say that the release of CO-2 greenhouse gasses is causing the climate to change,” Thompson said. “You can point out times that the release of CO-2 greenhouse gasses has been higher, and been lower in ice ages and heating cycles. But what I find interesting is that the average person, when you ask about CO-2, they don’t realize that internal combustion engines release CO-2; breathing, you release CO-2.

The Craig Generating Station, a coal-fired power station owned and operated by the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, an electric cooperative.
Photo courtesy of Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association

“Most people are just set back when you say that,” Thompson added. “A lot of it is about education. The country just needs to look at the best options to meet energy demands going forward.”

Walz added she’s hoping one change can help keep Craig Station up and running.

“I hope we get a different governor and we can keep it,“ she said.

As for what’s next for Thompson and Walz, Walz is looking forward to spending more time with family and relaxing, while Thompson will undoubtedly remain involved in the coal transition, specifically in Governor Jared Polis’ Just Transition plan.

“I expect I’ll be involved somewhere, but I don’t have any plans at the moment,” Thompson said. “The state has to decide how they’re going to come up with a way to obtain the money for Just Transition. I don’t know what the future holds on that, but I want to make sure Moffat County doesn’t lose that voice in that process. I’ve pushed Ray [Beck] to stay and be involved in that; it’s too important not to be involved.”

Coal trucks at Trapper Mine are seen in the "I" pit in early January. Craig Station can be seen in the background.

Managing Editor Joshua Carney can be reached at 970-875-1790 or jcarney@craigdailypress.com.

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