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US: Western Slope coal production enters golden age

BOWIE — Almost 1,000 rail cars, each carrying 100 to 120 tons of North Fork Valley coal, pass through Grand Junction each day heading to southeastern United States utilities.

In fact, mines in the North Fork Valley produced 45 percent of the entire state’s record-setting coal production of 35.9 million tons in 2003.

Largely due to highly efficient longwall mining technology, Colorado has jumped to the front of the line of the nation’s fastest-growing coal-producing states, up from 11th in 1999.

The coal industry’s resurgence means local schools and county roads are benefiting from taxes paid by coal companies: In 2003, Delta and Montrose counties each received about $1.5 million in various mineral-extraction taxes, while Gunnison County received $2.7 million.

And all of this is happening with hardly a peep from Colorado environmentalists. In fact, local activists are cooperating with the coal-industry expansion as green advisers.

Long-term residents of the North Fork Valley remember clearly the U.S. Steel mine shutdown in 1985 and the Hawk’s Next mine’s layoff near Christmas 1985, causing the loss of two of the area’s largest payrolls.

The family of Bill Bear, today the manager of sales and transportation at Bowie Mine No. 2, struggled to keep the Bear Mine open during this period.

“In the mid-’80s, we saw the coal industry go down; the prices dropped,” Bear said recently. “That set the stage for a lot of companies going out of business. Obviously, the (miners) got laid off.”

Three Delta County coal mines failed during the mid-’80s, but the Bear Mine in Somerset survived until 1996.

In 2003, Delta County’s only mine produced almost 5 million tons of coal. In 1983, there were three coal mines in Delta County and four in the Somerset area of Gunnison County, but the seven mines produced only 2.5 million tons of coal, according to figures provided by Colorado Department of Local Affairs researcher Steve Colby.

The coal-mining towns of Paonia, Bowie and Somerset have come a long way since Christmas of 1985; now it’s a whole new era a golden age.

North Fork Valley gold

Colorado has set records for coal production for three years in a row, reaching 35.9 million tons in 2003. Previous records of 30 million tons in 1999 and 25 million tons in 1994 were easily broken in later years, according to Colby’s figures.

Coal produced from five mines located in Delta, Gunnison and Montrose counties produced more than 16.5 million tons of Colorado’s record 2003 coal production, Colby’s data shows.

That’s a smaller number of mines in the tri-county region than there were 20 years ago, but they’re producing coal in larger quantities and more efficiently than ever before. The reason for the dramatic increase is technology. New technology has revitalized underground coal mining as well as the clean burning of coal as fuel for electricity-producing utilities. Innovation increases production to keep up with increased demand.

“New longwall mining techniques have increased production and made it a safer workplace as well,” said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association. “And as the price of natural gas fluctuates and as it skyrockets, utilities are taking a closer look at coal.”

Colorado produces 85 percent of its electricity by burning coal to produce steam to turn steam turbines, compared to 52 percent nationwide, Sanderson said.

Strangely enough, Colorado utilities don’t burn much Colorado coal; low-sulfur Colorado coal is expensive because it is mined underground, but it is in demand in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky where the Clean Air Act is forcing utilities to burn lower-sulfur coal blends. Colorado utilities mostly buy cheaper surface-mined coal from the strip mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

“It’s economics,” said Steve Roalstad, spokesman for Xcel Energy, which has partial ownership of a “mine-mouth facility” in Craig that burns Colorado coal because it’s next door to a mine, eliminating transportation costs.

Xcel’s Hayden facility “for all intents and purposes, is a mine-mouth operation. The Seneca mine, owned by Peabody Coal Company, is very nearby and that supplies us with most of our coal,” Roalstad said.

Utilities in the Southeast, such as Tennessee Valley Authority and Mississippi Power and Light, blend low-sulfur Colorado coal with high-sulfur coal mined in the East, CMA’s Sanderson said.

“We call it compliance coal because the utilities use it, Colorado coal; they blend it with higher sulfur content coal to meet their emission requirements,” Sanderson said.

An average of nine Union Pacific coal trains depart Grand Junction daily bound for the Tennessee Valley Authority and Mississippi Power and Light, carrying coal mined at Bowie and at Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in Somerset.

“Those two companies are our prime customers,” buying about 85 percent of West Elk’s total production, said Phil Schmidt, a resource manager with West Elk.

Bowie Mine No. 2 sells 80 percent of its production to the TVA, Bill Bear said. “The rest is scattered out to various utilities,” he said.

Bear worked at the family-owned Bear Mine in Somerset until 1995, when he joined Horizon Natural Resources, owners of the Bowie mine. The Bear Mine was shut down in 1996 after depleting most of its available coal reserves, Bear said.

Oxbow Power Company operates two mines in the Somerset area, which produced almost 5 million tons in 2003. All four North Fork Valley mines use continuous longwall technology. None of the North Fork mines are unionized.

Coal miner/enviro alliance

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “coal is an energy-producing commodity that is essential to the economic well-being of the world.” In 1994, 88 percent of the U.S. coal mined was used for domestic electricity production, and 12 percent was exported. In 1995, the Energy Information Administration estimated U.S. coal reserves to be adequate to last another 250 years.

While demand for electricity and therefore coal have increased, “emissions have come down,” said Jim VanSomeren, spokesman for Tri-State Generation & Transmission Company. Tri-State supplies electric cooperatives in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and New Mexico. Delta-Montrose Electric Association is one of Tri-State’s customers.

Tri-State is currently investing $116 million to reduce particulate and gas emissions at the coal-burning Craig plant co-owned with Xcel, which came on line in the late 1970s, VanSomeren said.

“We certainly hear concerns, and we share a lot of the same values and concerns,” VonSomeren said.

Similarly, Xcel Energy is proposing a new, 750-megawatt, coal-fired power plant in Pueblo that will use “state-of-the-art emission controls,” Roalstad said.

From Bowie, Bear said learning to anticipate the concerns of environmentalists has been an “educational process” and noted the mining industry has learned to cooperate and seek green advice “so that problems can be avoided.”

The North Fork mines have been holding regular quarterly meetings with local environmental groups for several years, Bear said, and have conceded one point.

“I wouldn’t look for any new mines in the North Fork,” Bear said.

It hasn’t always been an atmosphere of cooperation between coal mines and environmentalists, according to Rob Peters, the new executive director of the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council.

In 1999, there was an “epic division” between mine supporters and environmentalists in the North Fork, characterized by vandalism at coal mines and “Support Coal” bumper stickers, Peters recalled. A stakeholders’ roundtable that included many organizations from both sides was formed in a “polarized atmosphere,” Peters said, but eventually memoranda of understanding were signed. Improving safety at railroad crossings was one of the agreements that came out of the meetings, Peters said.

“I’m not aware that we have any issues with coal right now,” the WSERC director said. “We would characterize our relationship with the coal mines as positive.”

The Coal Advisory Group meets with mine operators any time a new proposal surfaces, and it works to sustain the viability of the local coal industry while protecting the environment, culture and economy of local communities, Peters said.

Until innovation and economics make renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, hydro, biomass or geothermal more available and reliable, coal remains the most abundant and cheapest fuel source available to mankind.

According to VanSomeren, coal provides the 24/7 constant flow of electricity that utilities call “base-load capacity.” Solar, wind and biomass “can’t really be used as base-load generation,” he said. The only other alternatives to coal, natural gas and fuel oil, are “very expensive these days,” VanSomeren said.

There are coal deposits in Colorado adequate to last for decades, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Deposits remain in the Colorado Plateau area, which includes Mesa, Montrose, Delta and Gunnison counties, that are “virtually unmined and have an untapped original coal resource,” according to a U.S. Geological Survey coal-assessment report.

“I think it’s certainly true that over the next several years, there will be stable growth in the coal industry as the demand for energy fuel increases,” VanSomeren said.

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Ron Bain can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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