Special report from the coal mines
In the operation of a coal mine, there are a lot of forces working against you. There is the weight of the earth from above that pushes down through anything that isn’t reinforced, and an equivalent force of the earth that supports from below, pushing up against a coal formation that is no longer there.
There are also the forces of public opinion, often damning the industry’s contribution to an environmental situation that has become part of dinner table conversations across the country. Then there’s the force of market demand with its insatiable appetite for a product that can’t come fast enough.
As Jim Cooper began telling the story of the Elk Creek Coal Mine to Gunnison County’s three commissioners and manager at a presentation in mid-July, his voice showed the strain that so many forces can have on a person, while he explained the mine’s plan for expansion.
“For this little bit here, we don’t even have to be on the surface. That’s not going to increase our production levels,” he said in a raspy, fading Alabama drawl as he pointed to a shaded area that represented 148 acres on a map of the mine.
But it doesn’t matter if the operation requires surface activity or not. The parcel the mine is hoping to expand into is under Springhouse Park Inventoried Roadless Area, a designation that restricts the types of activities that can take place on the land, or under it.
“In the [Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison National Forest] plan the Forest Service came out with last summer, they didn’t consider [Springhouse Park] a roadless area; they considered it as a multi-use area. But the California court reinstated the roadless rule so it’s back in as an IRA now,” said Cooper, referring to the U.S. Circuit Court’s decision to overturn the Bush administration’s limitations of the rule. Cooper is an executive vice president of Oxbow Mining LLC, which owns the Elk Creek Mine.
To compound the problem far more, the larger of the two areas that the mine is hoping to expand into is also in the Springhouse Park roadless area. This one, a 1,356-acre piece to the east of the operation, will require drilling to vent methane that is hazardous to miners, which means they need the roads and drilling pads that go with operations.
In an email dated August 4, Cooper writes, “There are problems with the 1,356-acre lease application! Oxbow and the BLM have just been informed by the [Forest Service] that [they] would not consider surface consent (required by State and Federal regulations) for the leasing of the underground mining of the 1,356 acres due to the Roadless Rule.”
Such a blow to the operation means that the mine might have to stop operations in a couple of years, which is up to four years earlier than the years 2014 to 2016 that the current mining plan covers, he says. Waiting for a different political atmosphere to appeal the decision could be the mine’s best hope for expansion.
Just a month after the mine applied for the expansion in April of this year, the Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action, a Denver-based environmental group, requested that the Forest Service consider a “No Action Alternative” to the lease modification, which would force the mine to maintain its current boundaries in that area.
“The industry is under siege,” said an exasperated Cooper. “Environmental groups have been appealing all coal lease requests.”
The county and its coal
If the mine were to close its doors four years early, it would disassemble its operation and go elsewhere, says Cooper, leaving a gapping whole in the county’s tax base.
In 2007, the extraction of natural resources in Gunnison County, most of which was coal, accounted for more than $75.9 million in the revenue collected by the county, constituting what is by far the largest commercial contributor to the county coffers.
“If the mine closed down, we’d lose those tax revenues, which would be significant. [The county] would absolutely have to identify other sources of revenue or significantly reduce spending and that is not an easy thing to do,” says county commissioner Jim Starr.
Currently, only one-third of the coal taken from the mine comes from Gunnison County. The rest comes from Delta County. That division will continue until the end of 2009, when the areas of coal being mined have been extracted and the operation moves entirely into Gunnison County.
Much of the Elk Creek operation, and the shafts that are used to access the mine, are in Gunnison County; however, Delta County gets only a percentage of the revenue generated by coal produced on its side of the border, says Gunnison County assessor Kristy McFarland.
By the same method of accounting, Gunnison County is the state’s largest producer of coal, although between the Bowie No. 2 coal mine and the division of the Elk Creek Mine, Delta County produces more than 10 million tons, compared to around 7 million tons produced in Gunnison County.
Regardless, the amount of coal being produced by the three operating mines in the North Fork Valley constitute nearly 18 million tons annually, or nearly half of all coal produced in Colorado, the seventh-largest coal producing state in the country.
Because the coal mines are such an integral part of the county’s economy, a special area designation was adopted just for those areas in 2003 to recognize the relationship between the county and its coal-producing constituents.
The designation is meant to allow for activities such as drilling to vent methane which is required specifically by the industry, says chairman of the Board of County Commissioners Hap Channell.
As part of a trip to the western part of the county, the commissioners and county manager Matthew Birnie got a presentation from Cooper and others on the mining operation and a tour of the underground portion of the mine.
“We do stay in relatively close contact, certainly. We get annual reports of where they’re mining and their levels of production,” says Channell. “We want to know what is going on there and if our special area designation is working out.”
And even as the commissioners make every effort to promote renewable energy use in the county, which currently pulls its power from a grid that gets 70 percent of its electricity from coal-burning power plants, they don’t deny the importance of coal as a power source.
“I think there is not only the alternative sources of power, but new technologies for coal that are much cleaner than those used by the standard power plants that use the coal today, and that is something that the county can strongly support,” says Starr.
The role of coal in our future
And as people throughout the country consider the role of coal-generated power in an increasingly eco-conscious society, both presidential candidates have accepted it as part of America’s energy future. As a whole, the United States produces about 1 billion tons of coal annually, which makes the resource too vast to be ignored by any candidate promising energy independence.
But the environmental concerns of burning the coal are completely different from those surrounding its extraction. For Dan Morse, public lands director for the environmental group High Country Citizen’s Alliance (HCCA), the concern isn’t with the mining operation under the mountain, but with the infrastructure that goes with it.
“One thing that is typical of coal mining in the North Fork Valley is the need to vent methane and that will require well pads and roads…Those kinds of things are to keep the mine safe for the miners, but when you do that in areas that are undisturbed, it can cause problems,” says Morse.
Still, residents think that the mines are relatively good neighbors. One reason the coal mines of the North Fork Valley do not raise serious concerns about environmental degradation is because they are underground mines, which is better than the alternative.
“Personally I think they’re good at what they do and I think that we’re lucky its not an open pit mine. In every field of endeavor there are those who do it responsibly and those who do not and I think we’ve got good neighbors in the Elk Creek Mine and the other mining operations in the county,” says Channell.
But all the environmental concerns haven’t translated into a reduction in the use of coal. As the costs of propane, heating fuel, and oil have gone up 47.6 percent, 69.4 percent and 73.7 percent respectively, between 1996 and 2005, coal demand increased by 13.2 percent.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, electricity prices have increased only 7 percent in that time, largely due to a stable increase in domestic coal consumption, says Cooper
Along with the nearly constant call that has gone out in the last few years to eliminate coal from the country’s power infrastructure, Morse says HCCA grasps the importance of coal and only hopes citizens can use it in a more sustainable way.
“It’s not a question of eliminating coal mining altogether or giving up on the environmental standards we have for the industry, but balancing the two,” Morse says.
The coal community
For the people who live in the coal mining community of Somerset, eliminating coal mining altogether would not be an option.
It is a town proud of its mining heritage. The first manmade landmark driving into town from Kebler Pass is a massive coal conveyor, stretched across the road like a welcome banner, connecting the mountain to a storage silo.
The Elk Creek Mine is the second mine in as many miles on the town’s main drag. As a hill inside the company’s boundary shoots up, a portal leading to the heart of the mine heads down at a steep grade like a straw looking for leftovers at the bottom of a glass.
At the end of the tunnel is where the workday for 278 underground miners begins, with an around-the-clock operation that takes only 11 holidays every year, and not all of those are guaranteed.
Miners have been taking coal from the North Fork Valley near Somerset since 1896, but today miners aren’t toting picks and shovels. They’re pushing buttons and pulling levers to operate an 800-foot Longwall Miner that can chew through 50 feet of the high quality, low sulfur bituminous coal in a day.
But no matter how much the industry and the methods change, the miners still have to watch out for themselves and their brethren.
“We still work in a hostile atmosphere. We work in a hazardous atmosphere, and when we don’t pay attention to it and do all the things we do, then it becomes unsafe,” says Cooper. “Not many people work in an area where all sides of you are dirt.”