A Colorado Coal Mining Town Struggles to Define Its Future

A Colorado Coal Mining Town Struggles to Define Its Future

“Many of us feel like there’s a target on our backs and the federal government keeps aiming for us,” said John Kinkaid, a county commissioner who recently flew to Washington to argue against proposed federal emissions cuts for power plants. “The mining jobs and the power plant, that’s what we have. These jobs are like grabbing ahold of the golden ring.”

 

Elk Creek Mine in Somerset, Colo., shut down in December 2012 and now only employs nine people. Credit Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times

SOMERSET, Colo. — For more than a century, the economy and identity of this tiny community wedged into the mountains have been defined by the coal heaps, railroad tracks and deep underground mines that filled train cars with coal and miners’ pockets with money. “Welcome to Somerset,” says the blue sign at the entrance to town, “Coal mining town since 1896.”

Maybe no longer. The Elk Creek Mine, towering over Somerset, once employed about 200 people, but it has been shut down since a collapse and underground fire in December 2012, with just nine employees left to manage its dismemberment. It is selling off its equipment, handing over its water treatment plant to residents and weighing whether to tear down the concrete coal silo that looms over the town and close for good.

“Everybody thinks our community is just going to fold and fall down,” said Terry Commander, who runs the local water district. “We have to learn how to be able to stand up on our own.”

Tighter regulations, environmental lawsuits and a pivot toward cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas have knocked coal towns on their heels across the country, raising questions from West Virginia to Wyoming about the future if mines and coal-fired power plants close and jobs evaporate. That future might look something like Somerset.

The community, about 225 miles west of Denver, sprang up after geologists found coal deposits in the late 1800s, and served as a supply camp for the railroad that runs through the valley. Although everyone calls it a town, Somerset is not formally incorporated, and has no mayor or council. Even stilled, the mine remains the town’s defining feature. It is owned by William I. Koch, brother of the conservative billionaire industrialists Charles G. and David H. Koch, who has put his stamp on this corner of Colorado with mining, gas drilling and a replica Old West town.

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James Kiger, left, and Terry Commander, who runs the local water district, toured the water treatment station that the mine company hopes to hand over to the town. Credit Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times

Somerset’s population, which peaked at about 700 when the mines were pumping out coal during World War I, has fallen to about 90 people, many of them retirees and part-time residents.

Those who stayed recall when Somerset had a store, a bar and a restaurant, and coal-carrying train cars and heavy trucks rolling through all day. But the only remaining commercial business has closed and is now an empty storefront with a “Keep Out” sign in the window. Houses are on the market for as little as $31,000. There is still a lot of local pride — many homes are neat, and the small park next to the library is lovingly tended by volunteers — but weeds are taking over some yards, and rusted trucks lie around town like tired dogs.

Another mine a mile outside Somerset is still producing coal and employs about 360 miners, but good-paying mining jobs here and across the state have fallen in the past few years. In April, there were 1,506 miners working Colorado’s 10 mines, about 540 fewer than there were two years earlier, according to the state’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

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John Davis, left, and Dean Schmid worked on a motorcycle at Mr. Schmid’s home. Mr. Schmid said he moved to Somerset three years ago for the fishing, but goes to work more than an hour away. Credit Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times

“The basic story of rural mountain Colorado is mine-dependent communities, aging communities, resource-based,” said Martin Shields, director of the Regional Economics Institute at Colorado State University. “This is the best thing they’ve got going for them. And between the environmental regulations, cheap natural gas prices, it threatens the existence of life as they know it.”

A three-hour drive north of Somerset, along another rich seam of coal near the Wyoming border, residents and miners in the town of Craig are locked in their own existential battle with environmentalists over the fate of a mine that supplies a nearby coal-burning power plant, the second-largest in Colorado.

In May, a federal judge in Denver blocked a 6,000-acre expansion of the Colowyo mine, saying that federal agencies failed to account for the environmental impacts of mining and burning more coal. The ruling came on the heels of a judge’s decision two months earlier to block coal-mining expansions in New Mexico. Environmental groups hailed the rulings as victories in their efforts to reduce smog-causing pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

The judge in the Colorado case gave mining officials in the Interior Department 120 days to do a new environmental assessment, or said he would halt operations, potentially putting 220 people out of work.

The ruling crashed onto Craig like an avalanche, setting off worries about job losses and stirring arguments for coal’s place in the local economy. Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat supportive of energy producers, urged the secretary of the interior to appeal the judge’s ruling. In Craig, one bar even stopped serving a brand of Colorado beer because it supported the nonprofit that had brought the environmental lawsuit.

“Many of us feel like there’s a target on our backs and the federal government keeps aiming for us,” said John Kinkaid, a county commissioner who recently flew to Washington to argue against proposed federal emissions cuts for power plants. “The mining jobs and the power plant, that’s what we have. These jobs are like grabbing ahold of the golden ring.”

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Tyreen Farnsworth, 6, watched a coal train roll by near her family’s home. A concrete coal silo still looms over the town. Credit Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times

In Somerset, few people expect the Elk Creek Mine to reopen, but they are trying to plan for life without it. At a recent meeting at the library and community center, they talked about their hopes to set aside one of the mine’s buildings as a fire department substation.

Some envision rows of new houses where mining infrastructure now stands. Some want it to stay a private, mostly forgotten place where they can watch bears roam the hillsides in the mornings. Two brothers who moved to town recently have tried unsuccessfully to set up a marijuana-growing business. Some say they want a few stores or roadside stands to coax tourists to stop as they drive through the mountains.

“We don’t want it to turn into a ghost town,” said Wanda Buskirk, whose husband works at the Bowie #2 mine down the road. “We would rather thrive. But it could go either way.”

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Phillip Buskirk has been a coal miner for 20 years and works at the still operational Bowie #2 mine near Somerset. Credit Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times

Most immediately, Somerset’s residents need to solve their water problems. Oxbow Mining, the division of Mr. Koch’s company that owns the mine, hopes to hand over a water treatment plant to Somerset in the next few months, putting the town’s all-volunteer, 60-household water agency in charge of keeping its own water clean and flowing.

Ms. Commander, the head of the water district, said she is worried about whether an unincorporated community could even afford to repair leaking tanks and aging pipes and pumps on a plant that once supplied water to one of Colorado’s most productive coal mines.

“Everybody believed they would always be here,” Ms. Commander said of the mine. “They aren’t going to be there to take care of us.”

 

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