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Know the West

$80k a year with a high school diploma: Why it's difficult to replace coal-mining jobs


On a Saturday in early February, the wooden bleachers at the old middle school in Paonia, Colo. were filled with men in boots, camouflage hats and Carhartt jackets. Most were miners who had recently been laid-off by one of the North Fork Valley’s three coalmines. Stern-faced women sat beside them, some wearing pins that said, “I dig mining!” One man wore a miner’s helmet covered in stickers from the coal company that had just laid him off. Right above the brim he’d stuck his most brazen sticker, which read “Stop the war on coal, fire Obama.”

The Democratic state senator representing the district had called the meeting and lined up a series of speakers to offer advice and encouragement to the out-of-work miners. During a presentation about re-training programs, a miner named Cliff Brewer spoke up.

“I’m all for the re-training programs and I’ve looked into them already, but the fact of the matter is, it does not support our life. A $10/hour job, that’s not enough to keep us here,” he said, to murmurs of agreement from the crowd. “Is there anything that would train a miner to make the kind of money he’s used to making underground?”

The coal shoveling competition at Paonia, Colo.'s annual Fourth of July celebration. Courtesy Andrew Cullen, HCN Associate Designer.

With a few exceptions, the answer to that question is no. “The city of Montrose (Colo.) hired patrol officers starting at $50,000 a year,” said John Jones, the director of Delta Montrose Technical College, as he touted the school’s law enforcement training program to the miners. “It’s not the kind of wage that a miner makes, but it’s a good living wage.”

But for miners accustomed to making – and spending – nearly double that amount, it doesn’t feel like a living wage. The transition can be especially hard for those miners who only have high school diplomas. “I don’t have a college degree and I make 80 grand a year, you tell me another job that’s going to pay me $80,000 a year,” Brewer said when I talked to him after the meeting. “There’s none. I’m going to go where the mines are at and unfortunately that’s not here anymore.”

Miners willing to move may find jobs in coal-producing regions that are still booming, like Wyoming’s Powder River Basin or the Illinois Basin in Western Kentucky. But for those who want to stay put and find new jobs in places like Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and, at the moment, Paonia, Colo., it can be hard to accept the severe pay cut.

Brett Dillon is the director of the West Virginia office of the United Mine Workers of America’s Career Centers. A former coal miner himself, he tells recently laid-off miners in the Southeast that they might need to take a job where they’ll just scrape by, but that that’s better than relying on unemployment. “Some of you guys will get back (into coal mining),” he tells them. “But what I encourage you to do is take advantage of the training while you’re drawing unemployment, so that if you do go back and you get laid off again, you have something to fall back on.”

Dillon’s miners can learn welding, get a commercial drivers license or become a diesel mechanic. In Western Colorado, Delta Montrose Technical College has miners studying to be emergency medical technicians and policemen.

West Virginia lost 10,000 coal jobs since January 2012, and neighboring Kentucky’s not much better with 6,000 miners out of work. That’s where Michael Cornett of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment program is trying to spend over $5 million in federal grant money to help miners move into new professions. But as Erica Peterson with WFPL Radio in Louisville, KY reports, that’s more easily said than done:

“The reality is it’s a difficult switch in this culture to get people to consider other alternatives,” Cornett says. … “This is a culture that is used to the coal industry waxing and waning throughout the years,” he says. “They’re not at all unaccustomed to layoffs, but typically those layoffs have been shorter and the phone would ring a lot sooner and they’d go back to work. That’s simply not happening now.”

Back in Western Colorado, miner Brian Waitman has applied to coal mines out of state, but also says he’s waiting to see if Elk Creek will re-open in a year, as the mine’s managers claim. “I can get by for a year, if in fact it comes back,” he said.

And that’s a big “if.” An underground fire that forced the company to abandon its longwall, an $80 million piece of equipment, prompted Elk Creek’s recent lay-offs. But the decision whether to re-open the mine – and re-hire its workforce – will be a macroeconomic one.

One of the North Fork Valley's three coal mines. Courtesy Alejandro De La Cruz via Flickr.

In general, Western coalmines like the ones in Colorado’s North Fork Valley haven’t been hit as hard as Appalachian coalmines, largely because there is still a strong market for the area’s high BTU, low-sulfur coal. But the economics of coal are rapidly changing as utilities replace coal with natural gas and decide how to respond to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury regulations, which come into effect in the next two years and require all coal plants to have scrubbers. The Energy Information Administration predicts a loss of 60 gigawatts of coal power by 2020 roughly the amount of energy generated by 26 Navajo Generating Stations, one of the largest coal plants in the West mostly from the retirement of old, dirty plants.

In the North Fork Valley, mine operators are closely watching how much coal large customers are buying and where they’re getting it from. Already one huge customer, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has said it will likely purchase less coal from Colorado going forward. That could mean more lay-offs at a neighboring mine.

Even if the conditions that led to their predicament aren’t identical, laid off Appalachian and western Coloradan coal miners do have one thing in common – the reluctance to call it quits on an industry that not only paid them well, but provided them with a sense of belonging. Compared to oil and natural gas booms, where workers from around the country live in man camps hundreds of miles away from their families, the coal communities I’ve seen in Appalachia, New Mexico and Colorado seem much less transient, and much more entrenched.

“We are a community, we are a family, and everybody’s there to help everybody else,” said the wife of a laid-off Elk Creek coal miner, who cried when she told me her family was planning on leaving the North Fork Valley to find mining work elsewhere.

Brewer put it this way:  "It’s a way of living to us, it’s not just a job."

Emily Guerin is a correspondent at High Country News. She tweets @guerinemily.