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April 29: Black Friday for coal mining industry

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Friday, April 29, was a day of palpable sadness for the once world-class, community-building coal mining industry of the North Fork Valley.

That was the day the previously announced layoff of more than 100 miners at the Bowie mine took effect, said a local mining official at the Municipal Quarterly meeting in Paonia last Friday.

A short distance upstream from Bowie at Somerset, the landmark Oxbow coal silo came crashing to the ground on the same day. Oxbow's Elk Creek mine has closed and the demolition was part of site reclamation work.

Bowie, following last week's layoffs, has informed the county that it now has only 35 employees working

to help shutter its #2 mine facility, reported Kathy Welt, an environmental engineer for the nearby West Elk Mine.Only two years ago the three North Fork coal mines directly employed 1,000 people, she noted.

The West Elk mine's parent company, Arch Coal of St. Louis, is in a bankruptcy reorganization. Providing an update on the North Fork Valley's "last mine standing," Welt offered the following information to the local officials gathered in Paonia:

• The West Elk mine is working hard to remain profitable.

• Arch Coal management is supportive of the mine.

• Arch Coal management recognizes success in West Elk mine's ability to lower costs and continue to produce top quality coal.

• About 310 employees are working at West Elk.

• Low cost of natural gas is impacting the coal market.

• "Very difficult regulatory changes continue to challenge us," she said.

• Arch Coal hopes to conclude reorganization and emerge from bankruptcy by year end, and expects that profitable operations will continue at West Elk.

• West Elk coal is super compliant environmentally; the mine's safety record is outstanding; and it has maintained award-winning environmental compliance during over 30 years of operations.

• West Elk mine's coal is some of the best in the nation, and is still needed as an energy resource.

Welt provided the DCI with some background on the silo that was demolished at Oxbow last week. In an email she shared the following thoughts: "It had served to hold a large volume of coal awaiting to be loaded on the train. When it was first constructed (I believe in the early 1960s) the train would slowly pass beneath the silo to be loaded. Later, when the configuration of the train engines changed, they wouldn't fit through the silo anymore. So a feeder and conveyor belt system were built to feed from the bottom of the silo to the newer train loadout building (built in the 1990s) that still stands to the east. But, it is soon to be dismantled and removed as well."

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