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