Driving south of Gillette, Wyoming, through an arid and austere landscape once home to herds of bison, you pass coal mine after coal mine, for 70 uninterrupted miles, carving deep troughs into the prairie. Seen from the road, the immensity of the mining activity is striking. But descend into one of these open pit mines for the first time, and it’s hard not to be overwhelmed.
Colossal digging machines called coal shovels load hundreds of tons at a time into haul trucks three stories high. Giant bulldozers rip away layers of dirt to get at rich coal seams, and clouds of brown and black dust darken the air.
This is the Powder River Basin, the new home base for the U.S. coal industry. If coal has started to leave Appalachia, the American West is now coal’s heartland. Production has dipped slightly in Wyoming, but the state still produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal – far more than any other state. The impact of this industry on the land and the people run deep in Wyoming.
Working The Country’s Coal Seam
J. D. Dietsche showed the coal shovel he’s operated for Alpha Coal for a decade, seven days on, seven days off. On a frigid day, bare hands stick to the metal rungs in the $50 million machine.
“You drive your truck to the dirt shovel, get a load of dirt, drive it to the dump, come back and do it again and again and again and again, for 12 ½ hours, minus your half-hour lunch break,” said a laughing Dietsche. “It is very, very repetitious.”
It’s repetitious work, often dangerous. And the hours are long. But coal is a vital part of the economy of this sparsely populated state.
“There’s 20-some mines in the basin. If coal takes a hit like it did back east in Virginia, Gillette would be a ghost town,” said Dietsche. “Everybody and everybody’s family depends on coal. On one of these coal mines out here. I know we got the oil and gas, but for the most part, Gillette wouldn’t be Gillette without coal.”
The 7,000 or so coal jobs here are highly sought after. Miners like Carrie Sieh, who’s worked in coal for 30 years, have raised their families with their earnings. But it’s more than just a paycheck, she says.
“Because we are willing to go out, run that equipment, and mine the coal, and bring it out of the earth, and we work holidays, 24/7, and through snow, through rain, through…all kinds of weather, then everybody else has the luxuries of electricity, and running water…the things that people take for granted that coal does provide for people,” said Sieh.
Coal’s Clash With Ranchers
The 400 million tons of coal mined each year in the Powder River Basin supplies power for millions of Americans, and gives an important boost to the Wyoming economy. It’s lower in polluting sulfur than eastern coal, and closer to the surface. And while you might not have to blow the tops off mountains to get at the seams, coal mining here has still impacted the land, and the people who depend on it, in far reaching ways.
Just ask L.J. Turner, whose family has ranched in the southern end of the Powder River Basin since 1916. (To see a short video of L.J. Turner, see this post, from the public media partnership EarthFix).
“From our perspective in here, it really seems that most of the time, we’re the only ones that don’t have the ranch for sale and hoping to sell it to the coal company,” Turner says. “We don’t have any plans of going to Phoenix, or Tucson, or Baker, California, or anywhere else. This is home. It’s been home for all of our lives.”
Turner’s ranch looks out onto the North Antelope – Rochelle coal mine. The mine sprawls for miles over pastures where cattle once grazed. Ranchers in this area have historically depended on public grazing leases to make a living. But those leases are superseded by mineral development, and the Turner family has lost thousands of acres to mining.
This is – or was – a landscape of rolling grassland, punctuated by rugged breaks where mule deer took shelter. But the undulations of the land have been leveled to get at the coal. By law, the coal companies are bound to “reclaim” the land when they’ve finished mining it. But Turner says that in practice, reclamation has been incomplete, at best.
“The coal miners over here whenever they moved in and started taking our pastures, they said, ‘Oh, you just wait until we’ve reclaimed this land. It’s going to be so good you won’t believe how good it’s going to be,’” says Turner. “And that’s been…thirty years, maybe? And our cows have never had a mouthful of reclaimed grass in those 30 years.”
Of even greater concern, says Turner, is the steady drying up of local water sources in recent years, which he attributes to the water needs of coal mining.
“Are they going to be able to reclaim the aquifers and the creeks?” Turner says. “Because I don’t think they can. They say they can, but all they’re doing is talking theory.”
Environmental Impact Unresolved
In western Montana, in his house along the banks of the Bitterroot River, Bill Ritchie is someone who has given quite a lot of thought to the impacts of western coal mining – on water. For more than 20 years he managed several Powder River Basin coal mines.
“There are problems,” said Ritchie. “The really complex stuff was the environmental issues, tracking the water, trying to de-water, trying not to pollute streams. Really it took a lot of work, a lot of effort, and a lot of money.”
When Ritchie first started working in coal, he says, western mines were being applauded for producing a product that was much cleaner than eastern coal. But toward the end of his career, he says he started to reexamine some of his assumptions about coal mining.
“We actually felt we were doing very good work by replacing high-sulfur coal with low-sulfur coal where we could get our foot in the door,” said Ritchie. “We were doing good work, and it was a good, clean environment.”
But some things about coal weren’t well understood at the time, he says.
“We didn’t understand the impact on the atmosphere and the greenhouse gases. We didn’t understand mercury as well, or the problem it creates in peoples’ health, just burning it,” Ritchie said. “We worked on clean coal projects from the time I was first starting in the coal business. And they still are working on ‘em. There is no such thing currently as clean coal. The net result is still…polluting…the atmosphere.”
All coal mines, says Bill Ritchie, including the ones he managed, begin by taking the coal that’s closest to the surface, and easiest and cheapest to get at. As the mine goes deeper in its life, the coal will be deeper and thinner-seamed and more costly to recover.
“Hopefully someday they will figure out a technology on a commercial scale that can burn coal cleanly,” Ritchie said. “But what a pity if we’ve mined all the coal, burned it, then polluted the hell out of everything. Then when it’s time, when we have the ability to burn it well, we don’t have the resource.”
Bill Ritchie says the type of clean coal technology he’s talking about is not likely to be perfected anytime soon. In the meantime, coal, that powerful and dirty and much debated black rock, is certain to remain a feature of the economy and landscape of the West for years to come.