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Senator Gail Schwartz and other state officials offer little to reassure laid off coal miners

Pam Morris via Flickr creative commons

Coal miners and their families filled the gym at the Paonia branch of the Delta Montrose Technical College on Saturday. Many of them were among the 300 people laid off by Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine in Somerset last month. They were there to hear state Senator Gail Schwartz and others talk about how the state could help them deal with the job losses. Some ideas included rural economic development grants and financial aid for miners to go back to school. But many people left the meeting feeling just as lost as before. 

Cliff Brewer was a coal miner at Oxbow for 14 years before the company laid him off. Now, he’s struggling to find work in the North Fork Valley. 

“I read the ad in the paper saying they’re going to have the state representatives here, and I was hoping really for some kind of solution or at least some ray of hope for us. And I didn’t hear anything that was positive,” Brewer said. 

He said every solution he heard from the state officials was long term, and “for a lot of us long term isn’t an option. We’re already behind on our mortgages, you’re behind in my truck payment, you know?” 

Sarah Carlquist, director of Delta County Economic Development, was one of the many speakers. She quoted a letter that Senator Mark Udall wrote to the U.S. Department of Commerce last week in which he asked for federal aid to “ensure the recent lay offs do not cripple local economies.” 

“My response to that?” she said. “I think we’re a little crippled already.” 

One of the most visible impacts of the layoffs so far is school enrollment, said Caryn Gibson, the superintendant of Delta County Public Schools. Gibson said in the past five years, the school district has lost over 400 students. As of October 1, 2013, “we were down 107 students from the previous year.” 

The state gives Delta County $6,300 per student. That means that last year alone, the district lost over $630,000 in state funding. To cope, the school district is combining the Crawford School and North Fork Community Montessori School and laying off teachers. 

It’s not fair to blame the county’s enrollment problems entirely on the mines. But Gibson said the layoffs affect kids in other ways. 

“We have students upset, crying, trying to keep it together. But when mom and dad aren’t doing well, students aren’t doing well.” 

There’s still hope that Oxbow might start mining again in a year or so. Mike Ludlow, the mine’s manager, said it takes about 12 months to buy a new long-wall. That’s the 80 million dollar piece of equipment that was lost when coal caught fire underground last year. 

Ludlow said there’s still about 35 million tons of coal left to mine, about six year’s worth. And, eventually, they’ll going to need miners to dig it up. 

“We’d like to think we could call almost all of our people back,” Ludlow said. “I’m glad to say that some of them have already found jobs and may not be available to come back.” 

Brian Waitman used to work on the long-wall at Oxbow. Now he’s applying for jobs with other mines out of state. But he hopes to mining in the North Fork Valley again in the future. 

“I can get by for a year, if in fact (that job) comes back,” he said. “I’m going to make an attempt to find something. But if I can’t it could get pretty lean.” 

Towards the end of the talk, Reeves Brown, of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, told the miners they shouldn’t depend on outsiders to help them. 

“The state can support you but the solutions are going to come from this community,” he said.   

Brown encouraged the miners to think positively. He told a story about his son, who was upset after losing a wrestling match to one of Paonia High School’s renowned wrestlers. 

“I shared with him, you can focus on that beating you just took, and you can be victimized by that. Or you can focus on the next match. And you can focus on what you have, or what you don’t have. You can focus on the future, or you can focus on the past.” 

Many speakers suggested the miners go back to school to learn to do something else. But Cliff Brewer says he’s much rather stay in the mining industry. 

“It’s a way of living to us, it’s not just a job,” he said. “I don’t have a college degree and I make $80,000 a year. You tell me another job that’s going to pay me (that much). There’s none. I’m going to go where the mines are at and unfortunately that’s not here anymore.” 

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