Remembering coal

A look at the end of an era and its transition.

 

This month, we take a long look at the end of an era: the half-century when coal defined the energy economy of the West. Lights burned, rivers were diverted and subdivisions boomed, all thanks to coal. But as Jonathan Thompson explains in this month’s “Facts & Figures,” the “Big Buildup” is over, and what he calls “the Big Breakdown” is on. The transition will be felt across the West, from workers who need to find new jobs to communities whose longtime residents are leaving to find work.

A train loaded with coal travels through West Texas. Since its peak in 2007, coal use by U.S. power plants has dropped by half.
Dan Winters

In this special issue, Jessica Kutz profiles Nicole Horseherder, a Diné environmental activist who has worked for decades to move the Navajo Nation away from extractive energy, freeing it from the often-unfair contracts that left the Navajo and Hopi landscapes depleted, dry and dusty. Horseherder remembers the once-reliable springs and seeps of her childhood, before the Navajo Aquifer’s water was used to slurry coal. She wants to see her community’s groundwater restored. 

Still, many Westerners remember coal fondly. In a photo essay by contributor Sage Brown and staff writer Carl Segerstrom, we meet some of the people who made the coal-fired Boardman Power Plant in eastern Oregon hum for 40 years. Last October, they began decommissioning the plant. Dave Rodgers, the plant manager, recalls going to downtown Portland and seeing the bright lights there, knowing he had something to do with it: “There’s nothing better in life than to eat, drink and know that your work is good.” 

It seems hard to believe now, but small coal-mining towns in Wyoming once sought out miners from Europe, Japan, China and Korea. The majority of the tiny town of Dana, however, was made up of Black American coal miners, recruited by James E. Shepperson, a Black community leader from Washington state. It’s a complex tale, brought to life by historian Brigida Blasi.

Katherine Lanpher, interim editor-in-chief 

Elsewhere in this issue are other surprising stories of empowerment. Eric Siegel takes us inside the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch in Colorado. It’s a remarkable community: queer, transgender-owned and anti-fascist — an alpaca ranch with colorful Pride banners and an AR-15 on the wall. 

One of the reasons I love Eric’s story is that it challenges our assumptions about the politics of community in the rural West, where many are forging new — and sometimes uncomfortable — paths to more genuine lives. Unfortunately, that message of tolerance wasn’t shared on Jan. 6, when an extremist mob breached the U.S. Capitol. While the rioters hailed from all over the country, they were echoing resentments sparked in the West long ago. Carl Segerstrom talked to terrorism experts who trace the carnage in Washington, D.C., back to its roots in the West. It’s necessary and unsettling reading.

Stay safe out there.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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