Out of the darkness

A Western Colorado community meets a coal boom halfway

  • Coal mines of the North Fork Valley

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Coal miners with Oxbow Mining Co.

    Alexandra Kleese photo/Black Lab Studio
  • Richard Rudin on Garvin Mesa

    Alexandra Kleese photo/Black Lab Studio
  • Coal loading station outside Paonia, Colo.

    Alexandra Kleese photo/Black Lab Studio
  • Kathy Welt of Oxbow Mining Co.

    Alexandra Kleese photo/Black Lab Studio
 

Note: two related stories accompany this feature story under the headlines "Mining out the middleman" and "Rural green: a new shade of activism."

PAONIA, Colo. - With a shovel over his shoulder and rubber boots on his feet, Richard Rudin tromps across the greening pasture behind his house and extends a hand. -Welcome to my hideaway," he says. Rudin's little ranch is indeed tucked away high on a mesa outside this small town on Colorado's Western Slope. Except for the small pastures for Rudin's buckskin quarter horses, thick juniper trees crowd the rugged hillsides. Above his property, near the boundary of the Gunnison National Forest, the Terror Creek Ditch flows brown and swift with snowmelt.

Rudin, 47, is the ditchrider. Almost every day he rides one of his horses on the ditch road, looking for glitches in the plumbing system that waters the ranches and vineyards on Garvin Mesa. It's one of the many quiet tasks savored by this part-time mason, part-time marketer.

But two years ago, Rudin discovered that his peace and quiet might not last. Two drainages away, the owners of one of the valley's three active underground coal mines were quietly seeking to expand their operation on U.S. Forest Service land abutting Garvin Mesa. Bowie Resources Ltd., a subsidiary of Kentucky-based Addington Enterprises, was after the relatively clean, high-octane coal deposits in the area that have become so desirable to Midwestern and Eastern utilities in the era of the Clean Air Act.

The proposed Iron Point lease was huge - 3,400 acres, with estimated coal reserves of 32.6 million tons. Some of the mining would take place directly underneath a reservoir that waters the mesa during the late summer. The ground above a mine can sink or crack - a process known as subsidence - and Rudin and his neighbors worried that subsidence might drain the reservoir dry.

Then there was the matter of that peace and quiet.

"I don't want to trade the hum of the hummingbird for the hum of exhaust fans, and the glow of the Milky Way for the glow of halogens," Rudin wrote in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that was preparing the Iron Point coal lease. The BLM takes the lead on mineral leasing, even when it takes place on lands managed by other agencies.

Rudin considered those words one of his finer literary achievements. He had no idea they marked the beginning of a roller-coaster odyssey in which he would go from fearing for his life to participating in a remarkable collaborative effort. The North Fork Coal Working Group, as it came to be known, would bring together Garvin Mesa residents, coal miners, environmentalists, county commissioners and federal land managers to confront the impacts of a quiet Western coal boom.

Along the way, the group would raise some of the stickiest questions facing communities bordering public lands: Who is responsible for the impacts to public roads and private property caused by decisions made on federal lands? And could a better process have prevented the nastiness that descended like a dark cloud on the North Fork Valley?

Watching his back

In the corner of Paonia's town park stands the statue of a ruggedly handsome, hard-hatted coal miner. He gazes into the distance like a steely-eyed Clint Eastwood. Below, engraved on a plaque, are the names of the men who have died in the local mines.

Coal mining is an endeavor of historic proportions in the North Fork Valley, and it cuts a thick seam through the area's culture and economy. When the black rock was first discovered in the area more than 100 years ago, coal mining was a modest, seasonal enterprise. In the winter months, ranchers armed with picks, shovels and buckets dug out enough coal to heat their houses and those of their neighbors. Over the years, mining evolved into a full-fledged industry, supplying fuel to power plants and industrial plants throughout the state, and later, the entire country and even foreign countries.

Much of the coal mining has centered in the tiny town of Somerset, some nine miles upriver from Paonia. With its tightly packed bungalows, railroad tracks and massive coal towers, Somerset looks like an Appalachian coal town transplanted to the Rockies. Up until World War II, miners here were paid in scrip, company money with which they bought food and other supplies at the company store.

Today, miners are paid some of the highest salaries in Delta County, even as their jobs have evolved from grueling work with pick and shovel to the skilled maintenance and operation of complex machinery. A high school graduate can enter the mines and soon be earning more than $40,000 a year.

Yet the mines have never been models of economic stability. They have periodically gone bust, sending the nearby communities into economic tailspins. The most recent downturn occurred in the mid-1980s, when the largest mine in the valley shut down after losing its major contract with a Midwestern utility. Stores closed, and the banks took over the homes of many departing miners. Some three-bedroom homes sold for less than $25,000.

The boom-and-bust nature of coal mining means that, even in the best of times, miners have one foot out the door. As one Bowie miner says, "Every miner's lost his job at some time." Many North Fork Valley miners have moved their families along the circuit of Western coal mines, especially the leg between Price, Utah, and Somerset.

Anxiety in the coal mines was more acute than normal when Richard Rudin sent his passionate letter to the BLM. A fire started by spontaneous combustion deep in the Oxbow Mining Company's mine had idled nearly 100 workers there for several months; rumors swirled that the company might not keep the mine open. A cave-in at Addington's Bowie Mine had killed two miners, prompting an investigation by federal mine-safety officials. Meanwhile, the Bowie Mine was rapidly chewing through the last of its coal reserves. Its future depended on getting a new federal coal lease, and fast.

Which may explain why Rudin's phone began to ring. On the line were the voices of angry and fearful coal miners. Some told Rudin that if he didn't back off his opposition to the new coal leases, he'd better watch his back.

"Most of the calls were anonymous," says Rudin, who later learned that someone at one of the mines had circulated a letter urging miners to call him. "It was ugly."

At the same time, a flier showed up scattered on the streets of Paonia one morning. "Dick Rudin Before He Dicks You," it read. Rudin stopped going to the local bar for fear of running into angry miners, and he began carrying a gun.

"Sometimes it felt like I had a bull's-eye painted on my back," he says. "I packed heat - a .357 Magnum - for a while. I wanted to let people know that I wasn't going to be a victim."

The tense situation spilled into the community. Miners' kids went from shop to shop asking merchants if they were "Coal Mine Proud." Those that didn't respond with enthusiasm were informally boycotted. Coal Mine Proud signs sprang up in shop and truck windows, and angry letters to the editor scorched the pages of the local papers.

On the cusp of a boom

Though much of the community rallied behind the coal mines, Rudin wasn't alone in his concerns about the mine expansions and the strong-arm tactics of some mining officials. At the urging of Garvin Mesa residents, a local environmental group - Western Slope Environmental Resource Council (WSERC) - began digging around to find out more about Addington Enterprise's plan for expanding the Bowie Mine, as well as expansion plans at the other mines.

It discovered that the North Fork Valley was on the cusp of a coal production boom. The three mines planned to more than double the valley's production - from a record 8.3 million tons in 1998 to nearly 20 million tons in the year 2003.

Pushing the boom was a combination of factors that had quietly changed the entire Western coal market during the 1990s. The first was the passage of the Clean Air Act amendment of 1990, which mandated that coal-fired power plants reduce their emissions of sulfur dioxide. This created a better market for low-sulfur Western coal, previously a high-cost stepsister to cheaper, dirtier Appalachian coal.

An improved market didn't mean Colorado coal mining had easy pickings, though. Increased coal production around the globe had pushed the price of coal down - from around $30 per ton in the 1970s to around $12 to $14 per ton today. Colorado coal mines also had stiff regional competition. In recent decades, mining companies have opened up the tremendous deposits of relatively clean coal in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. There the coal is strip-mined with giant machines and relatively few workers. Underground coal mining, such as that in the North Fork, has traditionally been a labor-intensive - and therefore more expensive - endeavor.

"Colorado still has a niche in the market, but the future belongs to the low-cost operators," says John Hanou, a coal-industry consultant with Hill and Associates, based in the Washington, D.C., area.

The need to lower costs pushed the North Fork's mines toward what's known in the industry as "longwall operation." Traditional coal mines use the room-and-pillar technique: A continuous mining machine cuts tunnels around blocks, or pillars, that must be left in place to hold the roof up, but leaves as much as 40 percent of the available coal behind. Longwalls remove much more coal with much less labor by running a mining machine back and forth along a long face of coal, under cover of large hydraulic supports that protect the miners and hold the roof up only as long as necessary. As the machine, its operators, and the shields move forward, the roof collapses behind them.

Before the longwalls, production in the valley had peaked in the early 1980s, at 2.7 million tons per year; with longwalls, the three mines projected that they would produce 20 million tons in 2003, with the same-sized workforce.

"Most people don't realize that the coal industry has undergone a quiet revolution - in efficiency, technology and environmental reclamation," says Kathy Welt, the environmental manager for Oxbow Mining Co." s mine in Somerset. "It hasn't been abrupt, but it has dramatically changed the way the industry works."

Budging the bureaucrats

The BLM knew about longwall mining and the coal production boom new leases would create. But, at first, the agency was determined to handle the new leases as it always had: one at a time, with a site-specific environmental assessment.

Rudin and WSERC (pronounced wuh-zerk) argued that longwall mining at all three mines necessitated a more comprehensive analysis. They noted that the expansion would place great pressure on the valley's transportation systems. Coal from the Bowie mine, which sits high up in a mountain valley, is trucked several miles along a narrow state highway to a train load-out just outside Paonia. With the new Iron Point tract, Bowie projected that it would increase the number of daily truck trips from 268 in 1998 to nearly a thousand by 2003.

As production ramped up, all three mines would need the Union Pacific railroad to increase the number of trains on its single-track spur from Grand Junction to the North Fork Valley - from four trips a day in 1998 to a projected 10 trips a day in the year 2003. Those trains would traverse the 44 railroad crossings in Delta County, some of which cut through the heart of small towns like Paonia and Hotchkiss, and many of which have no warning signs or lights. WSERC raised the prospect of more deadly accidents.

"We screamed at them (BLM officials) for months," says Steve Hinchman, executive director of WSERC. "We kept saying, "Look at the volume of coal that will be produced by all three mines." "

But the BLM didn't budge.

Then Rudin and WSERC unearthed something the agency couldn't ignore. On the Securities and Exchange Commission's Edgar Files, they discovered that Addington planned to upgrade its technology at the Bowie Mine to take out 5.7 million tons of coal a year, not the 2 million tons a year that the company had told the BLM it would mine. In effect, the BLM was analyzing the wrong project, Rudin and WSERC informed agency officials.

Even so, in late 1998 the BLM and Forest Service signed the Iron Point environmental assessment. When the Garvin Mesa residents filed a formal appeal a few days later, however, the agencies backed off. BLM area manager Allan Belt announced that the agencies would abandon both the Bowie and the Oxbow assessments and begin a year-long environmental impact statement that would look at the valley-wide impact of the two coal leases.

Avoiding the shouting

The announcement of an EIS provided new fuel for the civil war in the North Fork Valley. Bowie miners were more apprehensive than ever that the study would delay the lease and cost them their jobs. Some environmentalists quietly hoped that the Bowie mine would go under. But just when things looked darkest, a little light began to shine.

Scattered among the many people thrust into the coal debate were a handful determined to keep the community whole. One was Kathy Welt with the Oxbow Mining company. A tall, blond mother of three, Welt had started her career with the Westmoreland mining company in the early 1980s, just after that company's bruising encounter with Paonia citizens over a new mine just above town. Over the years, Welt had developed relationships with the nearby Garvin Mesa residents who had fought that mine, and she knew that some still had hard feelings. She didn't want to see history repeat itself with Addington, an East Coast coal company with little experience dealing with public lands.

"There are ways to mine coal and protect the environment and the community," Welt says. "I didn't want to see coal mining get a black eye."

As a first step, she helped Oxbow's managers pen a letter to their workers which said that the company looked forward to the EIS process and expected all its employees to be civil toward everyone in the community.

"This is a wonderfully diverse valley," says Welt. "We have cowboys, hippies, miners. You sit down and talk. You come to know your neighbor. You get to the point where you're not going to be afraid that someone will do something to you."

Still, as the first EIS scoping meetings approached in the winter of 1999, Allan Belt, the bearded, sandy-haired area manager for the BLM, was looking for a way to avoid public shouting matches. He turned to the Public Land Partnership, a collaborative group that had been around for more than six years working on contentious public-lands issues in western Colorado. Belt was a member of the group, as were Kathy Welt and WSERC director Steve Hinchman. They and the other members, including county commissioners, other federal-land managers, environmentalists and industry representatives, had successfully navigated such contentious issues as livestock grazing in the West Elk Wilderness Area.

The Partnership agreed to hold an issues forum to kick off the EIS. Hundreds of baseball-capped miners showed up at the local high school, as did many environmentalists, ready to holler. But the facilitator, Delta County administrator Susan Hansen (also a member of the Partnership), had a plan. She broke the crowd into small groups.

Miners' wives, environmentalists, small-business owners and other citizens sat uncomfortably next to each other at the lunchroom tables. Though angry and emotional statements peppered their conversations, the groups began to identify the most important issues the agencies should address in the EIS. Hansen and fellow mediator Robbie LeValley gathered all of the ideas and quickly organized a set of follow-up meetings.

Out of these meetings coalesced a group of individuals who cared most deeply about the coal mine expansions. The North Fork Coal Working Group included representatives from the three coal mines, WSERC, the Garvin Mesa water users, Delta County, and other interested parties. The group decided to meet weekly, and Delta County appointed Hansen as the moderator.

Out of site

The coal working group's initial meetings were tense, says Delta County Commissioner Ted Hayden. "There was a lot of hatred when we started. But people just spewed their ideas, and they felt better."

In between ventings, Hansen helped the group set some ground rules. Any member that missed more than three meetings was kicked off; the group would not go over information missed by a member; and all decisions would be made by consensus.

With each meeting, the atmosphere became less charged. But everyone knew the bottom line: If the Garvin Mesa water users and WSERC weren't satisfied with the environmental impact statement, they could appeal it and tie things up for a couple of years. That could put Bowie out of business, but not Oxbow, since that mine had larger reserves. On the other hand, the citizens' groups wanted a peaceful resolution; they didn't really want to be the bad guys that put their neighbors out of work.

"At first, I was definitely thinking that maybe I can make this one mine go away," says Rudin. "But it was never true that the environmentalists wanted to shut down the coal industry in the valley. I have friends in the mines. My fight was with management, not the workers."

The mine opponents were also pushed toward compromise by the knowledge that even if Addington went away, someone else would come in to operate the Bowie mine. If that happened, the community might have even less ability to control the impacts. Then there was the larger environmental picture: Burning relatively clean Colorado coal was better than burning high-sulfur Eastern coal.

"You could see the shared values emerge," says Hansen. "No one was saying "we don't want coal." "

Under Hansen's guiding hand, the group decided to focus much of its efforts on the very issues the federal agencies said they wouldn't touch, because they were outside the public lands - the train and truck traffic caused by the mine expansions. Progress was slow, but in late spring came a psychological breakthrough. The local school-bus drivers told the working group that they crossed the railroad tracks 36 times every day.

"Everyone has or knows kids who ride those buses," says WSERC's Hinchman. "That's when everyone said, "All right, let's solve the problem." "

In August, after five months of weekly meetings, Bowie Resources came to the table with a five-point plan. It became the basis for negotiating a formal Memorandum of Agreement between the mine and WSERC.

In that final agreement, Bowie stepped up to the plate on the off-site impacts. Among other things, it agreed to: contribute up to $500,000 to a community rail mitigation trust, which would purchase new signage and safety lights for railroad crossings (the Oxbow Mining Company voluntarily agreed to pitch in the same amount); build a new mine-to-train conveyer and load-out within 30 months so that it would no longer need to put trucks on the road; guarantee that Garvin Mesa residents would have replacement water should subsidence affect water availability; and conduct a noise study for the Garvin Mesa residents to establish a baseline level which mine noise cannot exceed. The mining company also agreed to post two $1 million performance bonds which would forfeit to WSERC should Bowie default on any part of the agreement.

For its part, WSERC agreed to give up its right to appeal the Iron Point lease. And, if an outside group appealed the lease, WSERC would intervene in support of the coal mine.

Hinchman took the deal to the WSERC board of directors. Not everyone was happy about giving up the right to appeal. "We also wondered if we had asked for enough, since the coal mines were willing to sign," says board member Steve Wolcott. "I'm sure that a similar discussion took place with the mine."

Bill Bear, the Bowie Mine's manager and a third-generation North Fork Valley coal miner, says his company's decision to make a deal centered on a basic question: "Do we want to fight this thing or do we want to be a part of the community? It might not be the community we envisioned when we first came here, but it is what it is," Bear says.

And, of course, there was the need to get the lease secured. "That lease is our future. We were anxious," he admits.

Both sides signed on, and the agreements became legally binding. Later, the coal working group took its hard-won agreement to the federal EIS team and asked for it to be included in the final Record of Decision. The agencies' response would have no effect on the binding agreements between WSERC and Bowie, but the group wanted formal recognition of its work.

"It was a wonderful feeling to have the mines and the county commissioners with us telling the agencies that they needed to address these off-site impacts in the final decision," says Hinchman. "That's never happened before."

The BLM and Forest Service met the working group halfway. They included the requirement for a new conveyor and load-out, but did not include a requirement for the coal companies to shell out railroad mitigation monies. "It was a tough call," says Jerry Jones, the EIS team leader. "We felt we could address the truck traffic because the companies still own the coal as it travels off-site in trucks. That isn't the case once the coal is in the trains." (The utilities and industries that buy the coal contract with the railroad to deliver it.)

This past June, Bowie Resources won the Iron Point lease. Nobody appealed.

Hard lessons

Walking down the streets of Paonia these days, it's hard to find evidence of last year's coal war. Only a handful of yellowing Coal Mine Proud signs hang in the windows of main street businesses.

Yet the participants in the battle still bear scars. Steve Hinchman, who at one point contemplated leaving the community after receiving threatening calls at home, says he believes the federal agencies let the community down.

"The BLM didn't do us any favors by doing lousy environmental assessments. It made us the bad guys," says Hinchman.

Instead of "rubber-stamping" inadequate environmental assessments, Hinchman says the federal agencies should have told the mining companies from the start that they would have to deal with off-site impacts. "The feds need to be the backstop. That job shouldn't fall to some group of citizens that has the courage to stand up. This is consensus by last resort."

The BLM's Allan Belt disagrees: "In hindsight, it sounds great that we should have stepped up. But we didn't know what all the issues were at first. Discovering the issues was part of the process.

"Would the community have been able to heal itself if it had waited for feds to wield a hammer? In the long run, the communities will benefit from having gone through this process."

Hinchman sees some truth in Belt's words: "The most difficult problems facing the West won't be solved through a single federal EIS. The federal agencies are trapped by politics. The citizens have to show them the way."

The North Fork Coal Working Group succeeded, Hinchman says, because "a few people on each side believed in each other enough to solve this problem." And though many people will never acknowledge the sacrifice it took, Hinchman says he was heartened recently when a couple of miners told him his group had done the right thing.

"I think WSERC has earned some respect from the community," says county administrator Susan Hansen. "Why should the community be painted as a bad guy for asking industries to pay their own way? We ask developers to do that."

As for the coal company, Bowie Resource president Keith Sieber wrote in WSERC's spring newsletter that his company has "gained a profound appreciation for the collaborative process, the need to maintain a dialogue with the community, and the need for industry to partner with communities to create mutual benefits for all."

Richard Rudin takes a somewhat different view: "The reason it worked is that we appealed and we appealed again, not because we all got to know each other. Appeals are necessary - so in that sense the process worked."

Rudin and others note that the one mine that didn't pitch in any money for railroad mitigation - Arch Mineral's West Elk Mine - didn't have an economic incentive: The mine won't be seeking any additional federal coal for years.

Tara Thomas, a community organizer for WSERC, says that while she is happy with the outcome of the current battle, she worries about the future: "This agreement solves some things, but it took so much work," she says. "We know that as long as the mines are in the valley, there will be ongoing issues. Ideally, the mines will come to us and tell us what they are up to. I hope we can keep the relationships and the activism up."

That may not be easy given the volatility of the coal industry. Inevitably, mines will be sold and the community will have to develop new relationships. Even the projected production boom is an uncertainty. New fires at the West Elk Mine have kept it out of production since January of this year. Many predict that this year's overall coal-production figures won't match last year's total.

A quieter tomorrow

Sitting on his back porch in the cool of the evening, Richard Rudin looks tanned and relaxed, like a man who has recently had a tremendous burden lifted from his shoulders.

"It's been a long two years," Rudin says, "and I've got a lot of sleep to make up."

Rudin sleeps better knowing that he is on speaking terms with the mines. This spring, he even flew a couple of Bowie mine officials in his small plane to a mine in southern Colorado, so they could take a look at a train load-out.

As dusk descends on Garvin Mesa, the last rays of the westering sun shine on a small metal instrument a hundred feet or so from Rudin's house. It is a sound monitor set up by Bowie Resources, part of a $40,000 study that will determine a baseline of noise which the company has promised not to exceed as it develops the Iron Point tract.

Somewhere a robin sings: Cheer up cheerily, cheer up cheerily.

"You hear that?" says Rudin. Now even the robin is silent. A gentle breeze whispers through the junipers.

"That's how quiet it's always going to be up here."

 

Paul Larmer is the senior editor of High Country News. Former "Radio High Country News" producer Gabriel Ross contributed to this story.