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Another blow for North Fork coal miners

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The beleaguered population of coal miners in the North Fork Valley and their families received more bad news last Thursday when Arch Coal announced another round of layoffs.

The West Elk Mine near Somerset reduced its workforce by 80 employees. West Elk is the latest Delta County mine to severely restructure after Oxbow Mining's Elk Creek Mine closed and the Bowie No. 2 Mine was idled.

All told, over the course of three years, the population of coal miners in Delta County has gone from over 1,200 to some 300 now.

In a statement provided to the DCI, Arch Coal leadership indicated the weak worldwide market for coal made the layoffs inevitable.

"We want to thank the employees for their hard work, significant contributions and years of faithful service to West Elk," said Jim Miller, general manager of West Elk mine. "We regret the need for this difficult action and the resulting impacts on our employees, their families and the North Fork community. We greatly appreciate the strong support we have received and we continue to pursue markets for West Elk's high-quality, low-emitting product."

Crawford resident Chris Johnson, 57, wasn't surprised when he received notice of his layoff Thursday night at the start of his graveyard shift. He said workers, who were paid for the shift, were escorted to their lockers to pick up their personal belongings.

A 10-year employee at West Elk, he worked on the surface the last seven years. Six weeks ago he was sent back underground and was one of several workers to be shuffled around. He said he was actually expecting to be laid off during the first quarter, but a contractor had been let go, and he was among a few workers to get a couple more months of employment.

Johnson's dad and granddad worked in the mines for U.S. Steel in Somerset, so this isn't new to him.

"It did not come as a surprise, at least to me," Johnson said. "We knew the market was not good and that contracts weren't coming."

Johnson said he took the job 10 years ago because he had six kids in school and needed a steady job with good benefits.

"It provided that," he said. Johnson was actually thinking about quitting in the coming year. "At 57, it was becoming a hard job."

Getting laid off allows him to collect benefits while he figures out what to do next.

While he's positive about the future and is working on business plans with his son, he's concerned for some of his former co-workers, and especially the ones with families. "They have to scramble," he said. "It's harder for them."

His faith makes it easier to look to the future. "I continue to have faith in the Lord and trust in God," said Johnson. "When God closes a door, He opens a window."

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