At 11 p.m. on a recent Friday night, the West Elk Mine outside Somerset opened its gates. Cars and trucks started rolling out, signaling the end of a coal mining shift in this rural pocket of Colorado.
Workers had been opening up a new section of the mine four or five miles underground, a tough job made tougher considering that the current economics of the coal industry means fewer workers at the mine.
Miner Don Stahly, 39, was catching a ride home with a friend. Freshly showered and wearing a Denver Broncos ball cap, he was ready to go home and sleep. Saturday would be his first day off in nearly a month.
Stahly has watched the West Elk Mine, like many around the country, suffer through difficult layoffs. But, at least West Elk is still open. The two other mines in Colorado’s mountainous North Fork Valley have closed in recent years. The valley has lost more than 700 mining jobs since 2010.
Jobs like these are held in high regard by President Donald Trump, who idealizes a traditional view of American life based on industry and lifting up the image of the blue collar working man. No working man has been more lauded under this administration than the American coal miner.
Trump has been trying to fulfill his campaign promise to bring back mining jobs, working to roll back environmental regulations and increase mining on federal lands. Still, the economics of coal aren’t looking good, between decreasing demand and low prices for natural gas and renewables.
Stahly has lived in the coal-rich North Fork Valley nearly his whole life. He has connections to almost everything, including the grocery store in nearby Paonia where he went shopping on that first day off. He worked for Don’s Market in high school. He said a lot of kids did back then, since the store was flexible with school and sports schedules.
Brad Holt is the co-owner of the market, which has been family-owned in Paonia since the 1930s. He said for decades, the mines provided lots of stable, high-paying jobs for the area; Stahly makes almost $100,000 a year working at West Elk.
Holt’s grocery is noticing the downturn, and profits are dropping.
“Well, I don’t know if you’d call it profits,” he laughed. “Sales are down from where they were.”
Paonia’s community character has been shifting for a while now — to more of a Colorado mountain tourist destination complete with organic farms, coffee shops and yoga studios.
That all brings its own benefits, but it doesn’t bring families the way coal did. The local school district is down almost 350 students from a decade ago.
Up on a small hill overlooking Paonia, past orchards touting tree-ripened peaches, sits the American Legion Post 97. Stahly stopped by Saturday night for the drawing of a local raffle. He bought 25 $1 tickets, which were tossed with all the other raffle tickets in a round wooden cage spun with a hand crank on the side.
He didn’t win.
The Legion’s head bartender, Pam Daugherty, moved to Paonia in the 1980s from Kentucky.
“I’m a coal miner’s daughter, sister and wife three times over,” she said.
She doesn’t like the town’s changing character, saying she no longer shops or goes downtown. She said she doesn’t know the people there anymore and doesn’t share their views. In the Legion, though, it still feels like old times.
“It feels like this is ours,” she said. “They can close the mines down. They can put in their health food restaurants or whatever. But here, we are comfortable.”
There were a number of other miners in the bar with Don, buying each other beers and joking around. Don described it like a family and his blue eyes lit up when he talked about the service they provide.
“Every time you flip on a switch, every time you watch TV, that’s what we give,” he said.
The U.S. still gets about a third of its electricity from coal, and mining it is physical, dangerous and dirty work. In Stahly’s case, that work is done miles underground, completely cut off from the outside world.
That was the case on election day last November. Stahly was working a night shift when his manager told the entire crew to stop what they were doing so he could tell them Donald Trump had won the presidency.
“We literally actually shut down, all went back to the kitchen and got to have 20-30 minutes to ourselves (to celebrate,)” he said.
The West Elk Mine has recently made some modest hires. Taking it all into account, Stahly is almost optimistic.
On their day off, the miners stayed out late, yet still made it up for an early Sunday morning golf game. Other than that, Stahly used much of the day to rest. By Sunday night, he was back to work in the mine on a new shift: 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for the next two weeks.
- Inside Energy has covered the coal industry in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota for three years now. You can see all of our coverage here.
- We dug deep into the cultural changes in Colorado’s mining communities in this story.
- If the coal industry does go away or diminish, there are serious concerns about long term clean-up costs.