How a mine closure could transform the North Fork Valley

· Dec. 19, 2013, 11:01 pm
For much of her life, Paonia resident Gale Roberts woke up to the early morning whistles of coal trains leaving the nearby mines.  

And, she never grumbled about the about lost sleep.

“I’d go, ‘Oh, good, another train heading out of the community,' ” Roberts says. “To me, that was good sound. I liked that sound. I didn’t care what time in the morning it was.”

But those whistles don’t interrupt her sleep much anymore.

Earlier this month, Oxbow Mining announced it was shutting down its operations at the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset.  

An explosion at the mine a year ago ignited a fire in the underground coal seam.

No one was hurt in the accident but efforts to extinguish the blaze have not been successful. 

The only option for now, according to mine operators, is to seal in their equipment and stop operations. 

The move put more than 100 mine employees out of work.

Among those laid off were Gale Roberts, her son and her son-in-law.

“It’s very scary,” Roberts says, who never missed a day of work in her 12 years at the mine.  “I’ve prided myself with being independent and raising my four kids on my own -- now I’m getting to the age that, who really wants me, you know?”

Roberts checks the classifieds every day but outside of coal, there are not a lot of opportunities in this small mountain valley. 

Problems at the mine

These days, the valley around the massive Elk Creek Mine is eerily quiet. 

Standing near the idled machinery, Oxbow Mining president Mike Ludlow said the company hopes to replace lost equipment and resume operation within a year.

“There’s still a lot of remaining reserves in the area,” Ludlow says. “As you look at these coal seams, these coal seams go from the North Fork Valley all the way out to I-70.”

That’s nearly 80 miles from the current mine.  

But reopening the Elk Creek mine could be a race against time as many analysts believe the markets for coal are dwindling.

Looming clean air regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency will likely shut down some coal power plants while others are converting to cleaner-burning natural gas.  

“There definitely is a war on coal,” Delta County commissioner J. Mark Roeber says.  “And we’re deeply concerned because it is the lifeblood of this county.”

Elk Creek mine paid $11 million in government royalties last year, half of which comes back to local communities.  

And the mine is one of the area’s largest property taxpayers where most of the $1.2 million bill it paid last year went to local schools.  

Mining jobs were also quite lucrative: The average miner made more than $100,000 a year in wages and benefits, more than double Delta County’s median household income.

“That’s really what I think the county is going to struggle with,” Roeber says.  “That kind of a paying job -- we don’t have an answer for replacing it right now.”

If the other two coal mines in the area close, according to Roeber, the valley will change radically.  

Hope in agriculture

Many in the valley point to the thriving agricultural industry as something that may help fill the void.  

At Big B’s Fabulous Juices warehouse in Hotchkiss, apples are loaded onto a conveyor belt to be washed and inspected. Every apple is checked by three employees to make sure nothing rotten slips past.

Owner Jeff Schwartz also operates the apple orchard that supplies this small factory.

Business is booming for the high quality fruits and vegetables and wine the valley produces.  

But he admits it’s not coal.  

“It has not brought as much money to the valley, I’m pretty sure about that,” Schwartz says. “But if we keep plugging along and pruning apple trees and picking apples and selling fruit and growing the highest quality fruit that we can, potentially we can be as lucrative as the coal industry has been.”

Still, Schwartz mourns the loss of the coal mining jobs because friends and neighbors are out of jobs.  Also, there’s less tax revenue for the schools his daughters attend.

Some fear Schwartz’ daughters, and the rest of the area’s youth, won’t have many job opportunities without the mines, forcing them to flee the valley.  

That’s what Gale Roberts son plans to do.

Since losing his job at the mine, Roberts says her son started looking for work in North Dakota.

“I don’t want to leave, I really don’t want to leave,” Roberts says. “By gosh, this is my home and I’m going to stick it out -- I’ve worked three and four jobs before, I guess I’m going to have to until something comes up.”

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