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More Layoffs As Coal Mine All But Shuttered

Elise Thatcher/Aspen Public Radio

More coal miners in the North Fork Valley are being laid off. Oxbow Mining company, owned by billionaire Bill Koch, laid off more than a hundred more employees on Monday at its Elk Creek mine.

It makes for a tough start to the holiday season for the North Fork Valley and neighboring communities. And it’s part of a powerful domino effect after fires at the mine earlier this year disrupted production.

Oxbow says it’s idling the mine, or stopping mining for coal, but keeping everything else ready for a reopening at some point. And it’s all because the company hasn’t been able to get a gigantic piece of equipment called a longwall, which can cost in the hundred million dollar range.

“It’s taking a lot longer than we anticipated,” says Oxbow Corporate Affairs Director Brad Goldstein.

The mine is all but closing less than two years after Oxbow was granted permission to expand the Elk Creek Mine operations. Oxbow had the right equipment before, but was forced to seal it off underground this fall. That’s because conditions were too dangerous for workers to run the equipment.

More than a hundred employees were laid off then, too. Goldstein says it could be anywhere from six months to a year and a half before Oxbow can line up replacement machinery and start up again. He says the company believes it’s worth the effort.

“The climate for coal in Asia and Europe is strong,” says Goldstein. “Japan is looking to acquire coal since they’ve gone off nuclear. And the same thing for Europe. So we believe there’s a market there, and that market will continue to grow.”

That echoes what coal analyst Andrew Moore with the energy news service Platts told Aspen Public Radio in October.

“The long view actually is bullish, both for domestic coal consumption and for overseas coal consumption,” Moore said.

Officials in communities near the mine say the layoffs can have a big effect.

“The coal mining are wage incomes in Delta County that literally can’t be replaced, based on the other industries that we have,” says Delta County Commissioner Doug Atchley.

Mining incomes are generally around seventy thousand dollars a year, or more.  When the mine announced the earlier layoffs this fall, some workers took to a community Facebook page searching for jobs. Some have posted they found work.

Which probably will necessitate a move,” says Atchley, “which puts pressure on the real estate market. It’s a ripple effect, so we’re very concerned about that.”

Managers said during the previous layoffs they hoped to reverse that trend. Mike Ludlow is Executive Vice President of Oxbow’s mining operations.

“Optimistically I’d like to think that some of the employees that had been laid off would have opportunities to come back in the near future,” Ludlow says.

That’s unlikely now, as Oxbow lays off most of the remaining employees at Elk Creek mine, and the company still doesn’t have the equipment it needs to mine as usual. About 20 workers are still employed at the mine, a small fraction of the previous workforce.

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