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Mine shutdowns in top US coal region bring uncertainty
This Friday, Sept. 6, photo shows the Eagle Butte mine just north of Gillette, Wyo. The shutdown of Blackjewel LLC's Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Wyoming since July 1, 2019 has added yet more uncertainty to the Powder River Basin's struggling coal economy. - photo by Associated Press

GILLETTE, Wyo. — At two of the world's biggest coal mines, the finances got so bad that their owner couldn't even get toilet paper on credit.

Warehouse technician Melissa Worden divvied up what remained, giving four rolls to each mine and two to the mine supply facility where she worked.

Then mine owner Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 1. Worden figured the accounts would get settled quickly.

"The consensus was: In 30 days, we'll look back on this, and we made it through, and we'll be up and running, and it's a fresh start," Worden said.

What happened instead has shaken the top coal-producing region in the United States. Blackjewel furloughed most of its Wyoming employees and shut down Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines, the first idled by hardship since coal mining in the Powder River Basin exploded in the 1970s.

It's a big hit to the region straddling northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, where coal has quietly supported the economies of both states for decades and fuels a shrinking number of power plants in 28 states.

Negotiations that could reopen the two Wyoming mines under new ownership are stalled more than two months later. Some 600 employees remain off the job. And doubts are growing about the long-term viability of the region's coal mines.

"I don't think we'll ever be that naive again," said Worden, 44.

Blackjewel, based in Milton, West Virginia, told its Wyoming employees this week that the mines might be running again soon and to let the company know if they wanted their jobs back.

Worden said she felt little reassurance. She's not the only one questioning long-held assumptions about Powder River Basin mines, which produce cleaner-burning coal less expensively than mines in other parts of the U.S. and weren't widely thought of being at risk.

But with coal in long-term decline, how the basin might eventually scale down production to a sustainable level has become a big question, said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming.

"The irony here — and it's really a cruel irony — is everybody is focused on getting these miners back to work. But really the solution to creating a healthy industry is some mines close," Godby said.

For now, little appears changed in Gillette, a city of 30,000 at the heart of the basin of rolling grasslands where tattoo shops are abundant and big, late-model pickup trucks still cruise the main drag.

This year, however, has been especially tumultuous. Three of the Powder River Basin's nine producers — Westmoreland Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and Blackjewel — have filed for bankruptcy since March. Two others, Arch Coal and Peabody, say they will merge assets in the region.

The turmoil comes as U.S. coal production is down over 30 percent since peaking in 2008. Utilities are retiring aging coal-fired power plants and switching to solar, wind and cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas to generate electricity despite President Donald Trump's efforts to prop up the coal industry.

A decade ago, about half of U.S. electricity came from coal-fired power. Now it's below 30 percent, a shift that heavy equipment operator Rory Wallet saw as utilities became less willing to lock in multiyear contracts for Belle Ayr mine's coal.

"The market's changed," Wallet said. "The bankruptcies all tie into that."

Wallet, 40, who followed his father into the mine in 2008, said the recent closures and loss of his $80,000-a-year job surprised him. He has four children, and his wife's job at a restaurant in Gillette is their main income while they await news about the mines.

Blackjewel said Thursday that it was working on plans to restart the mines while pursuing their sale. There were no indications in federal bankruptcy court filings that the mines were set to reopen, however.

"This is a fast-moving and sometimes unpredictable process, and accordingly, we do not have answers to all of your questions at this time," the company's statement said.

Wallet is looking for a job and lobbying Wyoming lawmakers to fight harder to force Washington state to approve a port facility expansion that would allow more coal exports to Asia.

"The ports are going to be a big deal. Asia is going to be a big deal," Wallet said.

But Godby said the amount of coal that the proposed export terminal could handle would offset only a small fraction of the amount that production has declined.

Powder River Basin mines employ about 5,000 miners — 20 percent fewer than eight years ago. The impact is even wider because an additional 8,000 jobs, from teachers to car mechanics, have indirect ties to the coal industry.

Locals cheered when Trump lifted a federal moratorium on coal leases, but Worden and Wallet disagree about whether changing environmental regulations will do much good.

Both say coal should continue to have a place alongside renewable energy.

"It needs to be a group effort, not green is on one side and black is on the other," Worden said. "We don't want this community to die."

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