People came to hear what state and local agencies could do to help those without work due to the idling of Elk Creek Mine in Somerset. The community meeting was held at EnergyTech in Paonia on Saturday, Feb. 8.
Sen. Gail Schwartz had organized the meeting and was joined by Rep. Millie Hamner and facilitator Reeves Brown, who is the executive director of the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). Also participating were Ray Lucero of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Elyse Ackerman of DOLA, Darcy Owens-Trask of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, Mike Ludlow of Oxbow Corporation, Caryn Gibson of Delta County Public Schools, Sarah Carlquist of Delta County Economic Development and John Jones of Delta-Montrose Technical College.
A sheet was available to those attending, with the contact information for each of the speakers so that those attending could be in contact with them. The meeting ran a half hour longer than planned, but those with questions still unanswered could reach the different speakers later for answers and direction.
Sen. Schwartz thanked everyone for “taking time on a snowy Saturday afternoon to visit with us. I feel today is an important meeting.” Her hope was the meeting would “provide insights into some of the opportunities available at the state level for Delta County, the community and your industry.” Sen. Schwartz stressed the contributions of the generations of coal miners “that have served this community and our nation generating the coal necessary to heat our homes. Today still, over 60 percent of our electric generation [within Colorado] is coal-fired. We know a diverse portfolio of resources is the future of this state long-term.” She said there are different perspectives but people can find ways to work together.
Sen. Schwartz said the methane capture off Elk Creek Mine is a perfect example of that.
Rep. Millie Hamner said she was there with the others “to listen to the constituents and to help solve problems.” She continued, “The idling of the Elk Creek Mine has resulted in many very serious challenges for those of you that live in the North Fork Valley community. Not only has this idling of the mine resulted in the layoff of 300 people, it has impacted school enrollment … tax revenue and local businesses.”
She said the meeting was to inform the public of immediate resources and also to look ahead to long-term solutions and opportunities to broaden the economy.
Ray Lucero of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment oversees three Work Force Centers. He said his department helps people on a daily basis to find work. Many can change their lives for the better. The department has the largest database of job listings in the state through Connecting Colorado. Job listings are available online 24/7. They also help displaced workers train for another career. There is training available at Delta-Montrose Technical College and Colorado Mesa University. They can also assist with unemployment insurance, and help people with their resumes and interviewing skills.
Elyse Ackerman is the regional manager for the Department of Local Affairs out of the Grand Junction office. DOLA works primarily with local governments providing technical assistance for municipalities and counties. They have financial and grant programs available, energy impact grants, community development block grants and other grant programs. “Your communities are really good at tapping into those funding sources, and we are in regular communication with each other in how our grant programs can support what your community is trying to achieve,” Ackerman said.
As the local communities work to continue a thriving local economy, DOLA has programs such as the Main Street Program. It is designed to create “a grassroots-driven energy behind economic development that brings the business owners, the local government and residents to work together to create a vibrant community center in downtown,” Ackerman said. Delta and Cedaredge have been involved in that program.
Darcy Owens-Trask does regional development for the Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT). She works on only rural programs. “If a business wanted to come here and replace some of the jobs that have been lost,” she said, “we are the department that might be of some assistance.” Their departments attract global businesses to Colorado. The Colorado Innovation Network has resources for exporters. The Tourism Office does a lot of promotion for this area, she said. The Colorado Film Office, Colorado Creative Industries, small business development centers and business funding and incentives are all part of this state organization.
They offer various tools to help businesses grow. They offer strategic fund tax credits to help businesses. The REDI Program (Rural Economic Development Initiative) is available to help this region attract new jobs and to help businesses here to grow. They offer grant funding and technical assistance to diversify and add resiliency to the economy. All of Delta County is included in their programs.
OEDIT will have a meeting on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. at EnergyTech in Paonia for local government, business and community leaders to talk about the REDI Program. The grant can help pay for public infrastructure, business facilities and workforce training.
Mike Ludlow, mine manager for Oxbow Corporation, first explained that the Elk Creek Mine has not closed, but has been idled. “About a year ago, December 2012, we had a geologic event that caused an air blast and interrupted our ventilation. A short time later, we had a spontaneous combustion event underground in the area where the longwall produces coal. We sealed the mine to deprive the spontaneous combustion of oxygen. In August, we removed those seals and went back in to recover the longwall. Within 12 days the spontaneous combustion rekindled, and it was at that point that we made a decision that it was not safe to recover the longwall. So, it was a decision based on safety and safety of the employees that we resealed the mine. We continued development for another four months. At that point it became obvious to us it was going to be a year or more before we could procure another longwall mining system.”
That is what they are doing now. They are looking at new and used longwall systems that would fit their applications. Ludlow said they are “actively pursuing getting back into the business.” Procuring a new longwall could cost between $50-$80 million.
He described the business climate as “very, very difficult.” Electricity in the U.S. is generated using coal by less than 40 percent. “Coal is really going to be a fuel of choice throughout the whole world. It’s going to be in demand,” he said. “Germany is building coal-fired plants. China is closing some of their older plants and retrofitting them with modern scrubber technologies.”
Three major power plants at Hayden and Craig in Colorado and Deseret in Utah are equipped with modern scrubbers and control emissions. “Those power plants have no impact on the environment,” Ludlow said.
Caryn Gibson, school district superintendent, said that the district has been losing students for five years.
Sarah Carlquist, director of Delta County Economic Development, said the loss of 300 jobs has “crippled” the area. That is the equivalent of losing over 19,000 jobs in the Denver metro area. Each loss of a coal mine job equates to seven other jobs being lost in the community.
John Jones, director of Delta-Montrose Technical College, discussed various training programs offered for those who want to add to their skills or learn a new skill.
Reeves Brown concluded by saying no solution comes from outside, it comes from within. The best assets of a community are it’s people. He wanted everyone to know that “We want to support you.”
Tom Anderson, a 19 year veteran of Oxbow, said at 64 he is concerned where his next job will be. He’s afraid there won’t be another opportunity in this state for him and he will have to leave the community. He has three job interviews, all in other states. He has paid to upgrade his skills in search of better job opportunities.
Sen. Schwartz said she would like to work with Mike Ludlow on how the state can streamline permitting on the new Oak Mesa coal mine.