Workers outside the job question the future of the top US coal region

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) – At two of the world's largest coal mines, the economy became so bad that the owner couldn't even get toilet paper on credit.

Warehouse technician Melissa Worden split what was left of the last case, giving four rolls to each mine and two to the mine supply plant where she worked.

Days later, things got worse.

My owner Blackjewel LLC filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 1st. Will be at At first I was aware that the accounts would be settled quickly, and suppliers of everything from copy paper to parts to dump-sized house would soon be back to doing normal business with the mines.

"The consensus was: In 30 days, we will look back at this, and we will get through it, then we will be up and running, and it is a fresh start," she said.

What happened instead has shaken the top coal-producing region of the United States as an explosive mining prosecutor. Blackjewel beat most of its Wyoming employees and laid down Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines, the first free of adversity since coal mining in the Powder River Basin exploded in the 1970s. Montana, where coal has quietly supported the economies of both states for decades and fuels a shrinking number of power plants in 28 states.

Negotiations that could reopen the two Wyoming mines under new ownership – potentially former Bristol, Tennessee-based Contura Energy – are halted more than two months later. Around 600 employees are still out of work. They lost health insurance coverage at the end of August.

And there is growing doubt about the long-term viability of the coal mines in the region – in particular Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr, the fourth and sixth largest in the US, respectively, after production.

"I don't think we'll ever be so naive again," said Worden, 44.

Blackjewel, based in Milton, West Virginia, told Wyoming employees this week that the mines might be up and running. soon and to let the company know if they wanted the job back.

Worden said she felt little security. On a break from a part-time electrical contracting job in North Dakota, she wondered if she would accept any offer of full-time work or endure her old job.

She is not the only one to question long attitudes about Coal Mines from the Powder Elbe Pool, which produces cleaner burning coal less expensive than mines in other parts of the United States and was not considered at risk despite renewable energy pressures to combat climate change.

But with coal in the long-term decline, how the pool can eventually scale down production to a sustainable level has become a big question, said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming.

“The irony here – and it really is a cruel irony – is all focused on getting these miners back to work. But really, the solution to creating a healthy industry is some mines close by, "Godby said.

So far, little seems to have changed in Gillette, a town of 30,000 people in the heart of the pool of rolling grasslands amid the Black Hills and snow-covered Bighorn Mountains, there are plenty of tattoo shops, and big, late-model pickup cars are still cruising.

This year, however, has been particularly tumultuous. Energy and Blackjewel – have filed for bankruptcy since March. Two others, Arch Coal and Peabody, have announced they will merge assets in the region.

The turmoil comes as US coal production is down over 30% since it peaked in 2008. Tools pull returning aging coal power plants and switching to solar, wind and cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas to generate electricity despite President Donald Trump's efforts to support the coal industry. [19659002] About a decade ago, about half of American electricity came from coal power. Now it's under 30%, a shift that heavy equipment operator Rory Wallet viewed as tools became less willing to lock in multi-year contracts for Belle Ayr coal.

"The market has changed," Wallet said. "The bankruptcies are all tied together."

Wallet, 40, accompanied his father, an equipment mechanic, into the Belle Ayr mine in 2008. He said the recent closures of the mine and the loss of $ 80,000 dollars a year took him by surprise.

He has four children, aged 11 to 16, and his wife says working at Ruby Tuesday & # 39; s Gillette restaurant is their most important income while waiting for news about the mines.

Blackjewel said on Thursday that it was working on plans to restart the mines as they continue to sell. However, there were no indications in the West Virginia federal bankruptcy court that the mines were set to reopen.

"This is a fast and sometimes unpredictable process, and as a result, we do not have answers to all your questions at this time," the company statement states.

The wallet is looking for a job and uses its downtime to sell " We Will Rise Again "T-shirts for Families of Labor Coal Miners. He is also lobbying legislators in Wyoming to fight harder to force Washington State to approve an expansion of port facilities that will allow more coal exports to Asia.

He questions the outlook of Godby for the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy that some mines must close.

"I think, with Rob, it's the medium and worst case," Wallet said. "The ports will be a big deal. Asia is going to be a big deal. "

Wallet pointed out that the Powder River Basin still has a century or two of recoverable coal left, and just north of Gillette, the state has invested $ 15 million in a facility to study how to capture climate-changing carbon dioxide from a power plant and profitably use it in products ranging from concrete to biofuels.

Wallet is optimistic about technology could save coal. But carbon capture, if it happens at all, may come too late to do the coal industry much good amid global concern for climate change, Godby said.

"We will not see widespread use of carbon capture and storage for at least a decade," Godby said. "That's just the reality."

He also doubted that exports could save the coal industry in the region. There is no direct railway line to Pacific Northwest from most of the pool's mines, and the amount of coal that the proposed export terminal could handle would offset only a small fraction of the amount that production has gone down, said Godby.

fewer than eight years ago, but the impact is even greater because another 8,000 jobs, from teachers to automotive mechanics, have indirect ties to the broader economy of the coal industry.

Local unemployment rose to 5.7% in July, compared to 4, 1% the year before.

Trump received 88% of Campbell County votes, the heart of the pool, locals cheered as he lifted a federal coal contract moratorium former President Barack Obama introduced, but Worden and Wallet disagree that changing environmental regulations will do much good in the long run. Wallet believes improvement can be right around the corner.

Both say coal should continue to have a place in the economy next to renewable energy.

"It has to be a group effort, not green on one side and black is on the other," said Worden. "We don't want this community to die."


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