Drive around the small town of Craig, about 45 minutes west of Steamboat Springs, and you'll no doubt notice many homes have one of two signs in their yards: "Coal: It Keeps Our Lights On" or "For Sale.”
Those signs sum up the town's economic past and present -- and possible future.
More from this series:
- Voices From The Clash Over Coal In Craig
- Charts, Maps Show Why Coal Is Key
- Photos From Craig And Moffat County
Coal mining by settlers started back in the 1880s, then really took off in the 1970s with the construction of the Colowyo Mine and Craig Station right outside of town in Moffat County.
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, some left town in search of other jobs. Over the last four years, jobs at local coal mines decreased by nearly one-quarter. Craig Mayor Ray Beck says the town is still recovering.
"It seems we just about get a footing and consumer confidence starts to come back, and then something like this happens," said Beck.
The “this” Beck is referring to is a May 8 court ruling that put 220 jobs in limbo at the Colowyo Mine. The problem was an environmental assessment the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement performed eight years ago when it approved Colowyo's mining plan.
The environmental group WildEarth Guardians successfully challenged the assessment, and now the federal agency has until Sept. 5 to re-do the plan, taking into account carbon emissions, where the coal is burned and gathering public comment on the mining plan.
WildEarth Guardians also has similar lawsuits related to mining permits in Montana and New Mexico that are pending. Other environmental groups are also trying the strategy in court. The Sierra Club successfully challenged a mine expansion in New Mexico by scrutinizing its environmental assessment, for example.
Colowyo along with the Craig Station power generating plant is owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. The mine has operated since its plan was approved and no environmental concerns have been raised since then. That's what frustrates miners like Brent Malley, who moved to Craig from Phoenix, Arizona, nearly a decade ago.
"Living in this community, we know what our mines do -- what they are," said Malley, who works at Colowyo.
"I think it's the perception from the outside looking in that really bothers people,” he said. “'It changes your perspective.”
The Rev. Jason Wunsch, assistant priest at St. Michael Catholic Church and a new Craig resident, said coal is everything to this small town.
"You realize that the second you walk in," said Wunsch, who grew up in Boulder. "It seems like every family is related to someone in the coal industry."
Federal Judge Brooke Jackson gave the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement until early September to look at the direct and indirect effects of mining coal at Colowyo, or the mine could be shut down. On June 26, the agency filed a progress report stating that it has met several key milestones.
For retired miner Ed Koucherik, Craig coal isn't just about the jobs it provides. It's about power reliability.
Opponents of coal mining “have the misconception that somehow if coal goes away it will be fine. But the base load that coal provides gives us very solid steady infrastructure," he said.
Koucherik said he was so concerned about the Colowyo ruling he bought a back-up generator to use in the event of possible brownouts. That's because his wife needs medical oxygen and a steady power supply.
"I know that sounds radical or crazy, but it changes your perspective when you have that sort of thing hanging over you," Koucherik said.
Coal in the crosshairs
The ruling, and threat to the mine, could mean changes for Craig Station, another source of local jobs. It's already in the midst of installing advanced equipment after a 2013 lawsuit by WildEarth Guardians drew attention to haze pollution Craig Station was causing in Rocky Mountain National Park and several other Colorado wilderness areas.
There's also a larger national debate playing out over coal. Later this summer, the federal government is expected to finalize the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. According to the Energy Information Administration, the plan is expected to reduce demand on Western coal.
- May 4: Study Says Clean Power Plan Could Prevent 63 Colorado Deaths Per Year
- June 10: Colorado Coal Industry Likely To Shrink Under Obama Power Plant Rules
"The Obama Administration has empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to target carbon emissions at the smokestack," said Jeremy Nichols, a program director at WildEarth Guardians.
"At the same time, the Interior Department has been completely ignored. They are rubber stamping more coal mining, not just in Colorado but throughout the American West,” he said. "The rubber does have to hit the road somewhere. There's really no other place for it to hit the road except for where coal is mined and burned.”
Coal and beer don't mix
There’s yet another economic challenge beyond addressing coal mining and burning in Moffat County: the Greater Sage Grouse. About 60 percent of County land is public, and ranchers in the area depend on federal land grazing leases. Those leases could be in jeopardy if the bird is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to County Commissioner Chuck Grobe.
It feels like "there’s a bullseye on one area in the whole United States where all these issues are coming together and affecting us 100 percent in Moffat County," he said.
The pressure came to a head recently when locals figured out Colorado craft brewers were supporters of WildEarth Guardians. Liquor stores and bar owners announced a boycott of New Belgium and Breckenridge beers, and yanked six-packs of Fat Tire and Avalanche from their shelves.
"New Belgium was our most popular microbrew. Probably outsells all the others combined," said Clyde Hettinger, owner of Dark Horse Discount Liquor in Craig. "But I'll live without it."
New Belgium officials said they gave WildEarth Guardians about $9,000 in grants specifically for watershed restoration along the Rio Grande River in southwestern Colorado -- not for coal litigation.
Breckenridge claims only to have given a $30 gift card for a WildEarth Guardians fundraising event that was not associated with the Colowyo mine.
Watching the beer--and the larger coal--debate from the sidelines, the Rev. Wunsch can see both sides of the argument: jobs and clean air. But he believes the approach taken by WildEarth Guardians fails to account for the human cost.
"I would question whether it is a victory for the public," he said. "What public are they talking about? Because in this community, it could potentially lead to a crisis."