Voices From The Clash Over Coal In Craig

<p>(Nathaniel Minor/CPR News)</p>
Photo: Craig coal Four Voices
From left, Brent Malley, Tom Kourlis, Shirley Balleck and Father Jason Wunsch.

It's been nearly two months since a judge required the federal government to take another look at a 2007 mining plan it approved for the Colowyo Mine outside Craig. Reaction in the small town of 9,000 was swift with much of the frustration directed at WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group that initiated the lawsuit.

More from this series:

The ruling requires the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement to re-do an environmental assessment on the Colowyo Mine. Nearby Trapper Mine in Moffat County was also named in the lawsuit, but a judge decided operations there were too far along for a review to be useful.

As Colorado coal production declines, the state is at a distinct energy crossroads. Coal generation could further shrink under President Barack Obama's proposed Clean Power Plan rule as plants move toward cheap natural gas. And the people of Craig are at the center of these shifting winds.

Colorado Public Radio traveled to Craig to find out what points--if any--are getting lost in translation. In each interview we asked the same questions: "What does the Colowyo Mine debate mean to you?" "What do you want people to know about Colorado coal?" We also asked for a reaction to a statement from WildEarth Guardians about the lawsuit, which they called "a major victory for American public, climate and clean air."

Brent Malley, a miner at Colowyo

Photo: Craig coal 16 | Miner Brent Malley
Brent Malley, a miner at Colowyo south of Craig, Colo., talks about his work and the environment on Wednesday, June 17, 2015.

Photo: Craig coal 16 | Miner Brent Malley


Brent Malley moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Craig 10 years ago to work at the mine, which supplies fuel to the nearby Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association power plant. Tri-State also owns Colowyo.

"It's a much cleaner coal, low sulfur. I deal with that on a daily basis," said Malley, who analyzes the coal at Colowyo. "There's a bias against coal and I think it comes from pre-World War II where you saw really dirty conditions and miners getting hurt."

Malley said he thinks many people would be surprised by mining reclamation work on parts of the Colowyo Mine. Land that was once mined and barren is now grassy and buzzing with nature.

"I think it's the perception from the outside looking in that really bothers people," said Malley. "To get out to our mine and see it is a whole different world. We see lions, and bears, and we see coyotes and elk and deer. We see a lot of wildlife out there."

Tom Kourlis, a sheep rancher in Moffat County

Photo: Craig coal 12 | Rancher Tom Kourlis
Tom Kourlis stands on his ranch next to the Colowyo coal mine about 30 miles south of Craig, Colo. on Tuesday, June 16, 2015.

Tom Kourlis owns a sprawling sheep ranch that borders the Colowyo Mine on the north and east. Standing on a bluff looking out at parts of the mine, all that's visible is green reclaimed land. Operations aren't visible or audible.

"I think we need to assess the benefits that are received from Colowyo coal and the cost," said Kourlis, who describes the mine as a good neighbor since it opened in 1977.

As a former Colorado Secretary of Agriculture, he knows better than most how the levers of power work. His wife, Rebecca Love Kourlis, is also a former Colorado Supreme Court Justice. The WildEarth Guardians lawsuit in his opinion is the wrong approach.

"I think we have to do as good a job as we can to have a sustainable economy and environment," he said. "What we have to do is allow for the opportunity for us to have that quality of life while we're pursuing those aspirations--not to get so obsessed on one macrocosm of issue that devastates an incredible number of people in the community."

Shirley Balleck, the owner of The Flower Mine Gift Shop

Photo: Craig coal 10 | Flower shop owner Shirley Balleck
Shirley Balleck owns The Flower Mine Gift Shop in Craig, Colo. and is the main distributor of pro-coal signs that are seen throughout the city.

Drive around Craig and you'll quickly notice many lawns have the sign "Coal: It Keeps Our Lights On." Those black-and-white signs are sold and distributed by Shirley Balleck, florist and owner of The Flower Mine Gift Shop.

Balleck moved to Craig when she was in fourth grade. She met her husband in town. He works at Colowyo.

Visit the shop and you find hats, stickers and signs for sale in addition to flowers. When asked what the Colowyo Mine debate means to her, Balleck had one of the shortest answers.

"It means my husband losing his job," she said.

The Rev. Jason Wunsch, assistant priest of St. Michael Catholic Church

Photo: Craig coal 14 | The Rev. Jason Wunsch
The Rev. Jason Wunsch celebrates daily mass at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Craig, Colo. on Tuesday, June 16, 2015.

The Rev. Jason Wunsch moved to Craig one year ago to serve as an assistant priest. It's a very different life from his childhood and '20s, which he spent in Boulder. But he loves his new hometown.

"People are really open," he said. "I love that I can drive 100 miles across the beautiful open prairie. I love it out here."

Wunsch said he knew nothing about coal before moving to Craig. But it's everything in Craig. The majority of St. Michael's parish are miners themselves, or have family members that work in coal mines, or at the nearby power plant.

When asked about the WildEarth Gaurdians lawsuit, Wunsch said he's concerned that it could potentially lead to a crisis in the community.

"The way it went about things through litigation and not through organic community dialogue I think was both an abuse to the public, but I think it will be a loss for authentic environmentalists," he said.