A Wyoming coal town comes of age

  • Instant City: Worker housing along Interstate-80

    Mike McClure
  • On the job: Boomtown workers in 1980s Wyoming

    Mike McClure

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

WRIGHT, Wyo. - Sometime this fall, a trickle of construction workers should begin arriving in this town of 1,300 tucked on the southern edge of Wyoming's coal-rich Powder River Basin.

By next summer, their ranks will swell to about 850, most living in temporary camp housing. The new arrivals will be coming to build the $750 million Encoal plant, which will process coal into compressed solid and liquid fuels.

It's only one of several energy-related projects in the coalfields that have already received state approval. If all are built as scheduled, the population of Gillette, Wright and the surrounding area will increase by about 2,500 people when construction peaks next year.

At a recent state hearing, officials from Gillette, which calls itself the "energy capital of the nation," and adjacent counties lined up to applaud the project developers.

"This is good for all of us," Gillette Mayor Frank Latta said. Nobody came to protest.

Wright in the middle of nothing

For Wright, the spurt in growth may seem like a bizarre déja vu: 20 years ago, the town was carved out of the windswept prairie during the first coal boom.

"We laughed," says Ruby Stuart, recalling how she and her husband reacted to plans by Atlantic Richfield to construct a town at the intersection of two state highways, 42 miles south of Gillette. "They pulled this post office trailer in and put trailers all around it."

"It's right in the middle of nothing," Hap Stuart adds.

The Stuarts are ranchers; Hap's grandparents came to the area to homestead back around 1920. The mines are "something that had to come," says Hap. "It's prospered the entire state."

But he worries that the state hasn't socked away enough to prepare for the day the mines will be gone, when industry "shucks you like a dirty shirt." To this day, some of the couple's rancher friends won't set foot in Wright. But from the Stuarts' perspective, the town has matured and become a real community.

Rachel Nava came to Wright from Arizona in 1980 with her coal-miner husband and stayed until 1991. "There were lots of young married couples there," she says. "The bonding was intense." But it was also temporary. Of the people who were there when she moved in, Nava says, "most were gone after five years."

When the discussions were under way about incorporating the town of Wright, Nava, then a homemaker, attended meetings. "Everybody was employed by Thunder Basin (Atlantic Richfield) or Kerr-McGee," the other company which helped build the town. "There was a real loyalty to the companies," she said. "People were really accustomed to and comfortable with the "parent" company," and many opposed incorporation.

Nava said she left Wright after her divorce, but was drawn back to the area "because I love the prairie." She now lives in Gillette, where she works as a physical therapist.

Playing golf and building industry

Wright's mayor, Joe Robidoux, said he knows Wright has come of age because "the tops of the trees are exceeding the roof lines of the houses built 20 years ago." The town is prepared to handle the 500-worker camp and another few hundred on top of that who will come with the Encoal project, he says. The camp will be tightly controlled, with no alcohol allowed. With 12-hour shifts and a seven-days-a-week construction schedule, the workers will probably be too tired to do anything but sleep anyway, he says. If they want recreation, there's a new town indoor facility - and golf.

"According to a lot of statistics, 54 percent of these people play golf and we've got a nine-hole golf course that sits between the construction camp and the town," Robidoux says.

Even more people will show up at Wright and the surrounding area if a second project that's already gotten state approval proceeds. The $295 million Two Elk project calls for building a 250-megawatt power plant adjacent to Atlantic Richfield's Black Thunder Coal Mine near Wright. The plant would burn "waste," or lower-grade coal from Black Thunder, the largest coal strip mine in North America.

If Encoal and Two Elk overlap, as many as 1,100 construction workers would be living in Wright by later this year or by early next spring.

Meanwhile, outside of Wright, and on up to Gillette, the draglines grind away, adding to the 1.3 billion tons of coal already extracted from the area just since 1991. Nava, who belongs to the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said she worries about the gashes cut into the earth to remove the coal. The group has raised questions about reclamation, especially about whether the companies are putting back the topsoil as fast as they should be. Other rancher members of the group worry about the brownish haze that hangs over the Basin.

But the companies have their defenders. Olin Oedekoven, a wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, says if you added it all up, mining "wouldn't occupy 1 percent of the landscape of Campbell County." And, he adds, "we've got a pretty good lifestyle here."