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Coal conversation highlights the human impact of layoffs

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In advance of a BLM hearing in Grand Junction Tuesday, Western Colorado Congress (WCC) and Delta County Economic Development hosted a "Coal Conversation."

The June 23 hearing focused on a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land and a proposal to increase royalties on production -- both of which could put additional pressure on the struggling coal industry.

Policies such as those may be enacted at a federal level, but the impact is most felt by the miners, their families and their communities. WCC members heard how those miners are coping, how their families are dealing with uncertainty, and how their communities are moving forward from representatives of local government, the school district, the hospital, the libraries and more.

Tom Huerkamp, DCED vice president, said he's been upset with WCC's stance on coal reform. "My main concern isn't just the eonomic impact in terms of dollars and cents," he said, "but no county has taken the whack we have taken the last few years over the diminishing coal industry. I realize it's a problem of both market and regulation, but the thing I am really concerned about is the loss of human resources."

Declining population is taking a "terrible hit" on the school district and causing "all kinds of problems that trickle down into the community."

While some miners up and leave for the next mining job, older, well-established residents take lower paying jobs while they wait to reach retirement age. In either case, Huerkamp said, our communities have less revenue, less money for roads, less money for parks.

But the loss we're seeing with these miners goes way beyond just their job and their income, he said.

He illustrated his point by relating a personnel issue at HopeWest hospice, where he's a board member. Recently, HopeWest lost three case managers because their husbands moved for mining jobs.

"The last one we lost was our chief clinical nurse," he said. "In this instance, the husband was a volunteer fireman and a Little League baseball coach. Spanish Forks, Utah, now enjoys having two young teenage boys added to their school system. They've got a high quality nurse in their community and we're taking a beating."

Kathy Welt, an environmental engineer with West Elk, the only remaining operational mine in Delta County, noted the loss of highly trained mechanics, accountants, surveyors, electricians, engineers, GIS professionals and environmental scientists who also volunteered in the schools, as EMTs, and as coaches, 4-H leaders and Sunday school teachers.

"We are losing the middle class that has historically paid the bills," said Paonia Mayor Charles Stewart.

"As a geologist, I know we have here in Delta County enormous reserves of clean, reliable coal," said Hotchkiss Mayor Wendell Koontz, who works in the coal industry. "It saddens me to see the silo up at Oxbow go down. That infrastructure will have to be rebuilt someday, because we'll still be burning coal 40 years from now. But here we are looking at people moving out ... talent and skills lost, communities devastated, when we know this is a resource we'll all need."

Paonia resident Ed Marston agreed. "We environmentalists have prided ourselves on following the science, and the science here says that we should do everything we can to keep the coal industry going while we transition, as we must, to renewable sources that are not carbon based."

Even the Sierra Club has changed its anti-coal stance, Marston said. He called coal "the bridge fuel" to the future, and Delta County has the best coal in the country. He and other speakers educated WCC members about the low sulfur, high heat coal that's being mined in the North Fork -- coal that's often blended with coal from other areas to help coal-fired plants meet Clean Air standards.

Delta County administrator Robbie LeValley explained Delta County is working in partnerships to diversify its economy through recreation and agritourism. But it's going to be extremely difficult to offset a $70 million loss in payroll alone, not to mention property taxes that have helped fund the schools, libraries, communities and county operations. The loss of tax from just one mine (Bowie) amounts to $1.2 million.

Recreation and agritourism will not replace that income -- there will be a "new normal" in Delta County.

"Yes, we are working hard to diversify, but a diversified energy grid is just as important as a diversified economy," LeValley said. "Natural gas, coal, solar, wind, hydro make for a stronger economy just as they make for a stronger energy grid."

Participants briefly discussed other regulations/rules that either increase production costs or put up roadblocks to exploration and leasing.

Sabrina King, WCC's community organizer, said members have started talking about the conflict between coal mine regulations and the impact they're having on rural western Colorado.

"We're based in western Colorado," she said. "Our members are in the North Fork, they're in Grand Junction. We'll never agree on everything, but we all want our communities to thrive."

She and WCC executive director Dave Reed said they would be taking what they've heard back to a core group of members that's been working on the coal issue "and evaluate what our message is to BLM."

"To have a rural community that's being challenged by closing mines that maybe shouldn't be closed ... that's some of the reality we are hearing."

While WCC has ties to national environmental organizations, Reed stressed that WCC is not an environmental organization. "Environmental stewardship" are just two words in a longer mission statement for a community alliance that's member driven.

"We are an organization that wants to listen, not just say what should happen," Reed said.

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