Craig, Beer And The Politics Of Colorado Coal

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Photo: Craig coal 23 | Flower shop owner Shirley Balleck 2
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 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.

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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.Photo: Craig coal 11 | Craig Mayor Ray 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.

Locals frustrated

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.

Photo: Craig coal 19 | Colowyo Coal active pit close
The Colowyo Mine about 30 miles south of Craig, Colo. on Wednesday, June 17, 2015.

"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.”