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MAY 2017

Is the North Fork going south? By Bob Cox


ment of Labor and Employment gave Paonia-based Solar Energy International (SEI) a $400,000 matching grant to start a program to retrain “workers furloughed from other energy sector jobs.” SEI used the money to start Solar Ready Colorado. News reports at the time said that the Solar Ready Colorado program was designed to train unemployed miners, veterans and workers in the oil and gas industry. Koontz said he was unaware of any Photo by Bob Cox local miners participating in the program. The 140-foot tall coal silo that once marked the Town of Somerset is now nothing more than a memory. Chris Turek, who heads up Last year, a demolition crew strategically placed 700 sticks of dynamite in and around the bin, bringing the marketing department for an end to Oxbow mining operations and highlighting the plight of coal mines in the area. SEI, said the money cannot be spent on actual training, and was therefore used to make those coal production. Kathy Welt worked of income, none of which have resultlooking to get into solar-related work at the West Elk Mine, went to Oxbow ed in full-time employment. Neveraware of the training that SEI offers. and then returned to West Elk when theless, he, too, said he will not leave “The project [Solar Ready ColoraOxbow ceased operation. She said his home in Crawford. do] was launched late last summer she was lucky to get the West Elk job. Johnson grew up in Paonia and or early fall. We targetLike so many others, did a short stint in the mines before ed people wanting in, Welt said that being “He works weeks over 50 and wanting to going off to school. He returned and veterans and so on. Since worked several jobs before going we launched, 137 people stay in the area presat a time, then back to the mine. enrolled,” ents unique problems. “I actually went to the mine kickcomes home for She, like Koontz, said Turek said that though ing and screaming,” he said. “But I the company reached out that many do not leave; a few days.” had family to think about.” to local mines, only a few they simply take availJohnson worked at West Elk for 10 were former miners. He able jobs elsewhere years and was laid off last June. He also said that the last election cycle and travel back and forth. One percreated some significant roadblocks. said he has plans, but will never be son she named went to Utah. “The unemployment here is a huge counted as one of the unemployed. “He works weeks at a time, then concern of ours,” Turek said. “But One older coal miner, who asked comes home for a few days,” she said. the money we received only prothat his name not be used, summed it Chris Johnson also found himself vides dollars for information. There over 50 and unemployed. In his case, up well when asked if he thought the are workforce centers on the Front North Fork was doomed. it was not the closing of a mine but Range that received actual training “Hell, no,” he said. “We are tough the reduction of employees at the money.” people, and we are not just dumb West Elk mine that finally sent him Even Arch Coal, the owner of the miners like some folks think. What to the unemployment line—a place surviving West Elk Mine, has seen we need more than anything is just where he did not stay for long. the impacts of a steady decline in to be left alone. It seems like every “I just did not want to put up with day there is some newsperson here that mess,” he said. “I decided to do “We love where we live and the people, wanting to see us crying in our milk. something else.” we now have to travel outside the county to work.” He began exploring other sources I ain’t crying for anybody.” ■

y some estimates, coal production has dropped by more than 50 percent in the last decade. Hundreds of jobs have been lost, and the trickle-down effect is causing businesses, both large and small, to reevaluate, reduce and sometimes close up shop entirely. On the forefront of the problem is Delta County, and in particular the North Fork Valley, where a few years ago trains consisting of 100 cars each carried coal out of three mines several times a day. They’ve been reduced to about two per week. Bowie Resources stopped coal production and Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine is closed, probably permanently. More than 1,000 miners were laid off or forced to go elsewhere to work, likely in mines that are also destined to close or reduce their workforces in the near future. Many of those laid off workers are reaching an age where changing careers is not easy. While studies published by some groups, including the American Association of Retired People (AARP), say that the over-50 unemployed are finding jobs easier than in the past, many in the North Fork say there’s a different dynamic there. Wendell Koontz, mayor of Hotchkiss and a 15-year veteran of Arch Coal, explained that dynamic. “We love where we live and the people, but we now have to travel outside the county to work,” he said. Koontz and others said that those who have worked for a decade or more in the coal mines, and have known no other life, find themselves over 50 years old and looking to do something else. If they do find employment, it often results in them being under-employed. Last August, the Colorado Depart-


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