This is the first in a two-part series.
Keith Williams is about to steer his Ford Expedition 300 feet down a dirt road into one of the largest open pit mines in the world.
“Down we go,” says Williams, who’s in charge here at the Black Thunder mine.
The first thing that hits you is the sheer size of this operation. Dump trucks as big as California bungalows rumble around us. Back and forth. Clearing away millions of pounds of clay and dirt to get at the rich coal seam underneath.
It’s like peering into an ant colony under siege.
The U.S. produces about a billion tons of coal every year. Almost half of it is mined here in the Powder River Basin in the northeastern corner of the state of Wyoming.
There are now five ports in Washington and Oregon considering building export terminals to ship American coal to Asia. The coal would come from mines in Wyoming and Montana and would be transported by train to the Northwest. That has governmental agencies, environmental groups, tribes, labor unions, and industry facing off in an increasingly fierce debate.
Williams slows down as we arrive at the core of the mine.
“It’s the big one, it’s the queen bee. It’s the big machine,” Williams says, glancing over his shoulder at what’s called a drag line. It looks like a crane attached to an apartment building, swiveling back and forth, with a giant bucket suspended from one end to scoop earth.
All of this to get to the black gold buried beneath.
There are 12 other strip mines like this one in the Wyoming section of the Powder River Basin. They loosely encircle the city of Gillette like a string of black pearls - or gaping holes in the earth.
But where some see gaping holes, others see jobs.
“Gillette depends hugely on the coal industry,” Tom Lubnau explains. Lubnau is a state representative who came to Gillette when he was 6 months old and has seen the city boom as coal companies pumped money into the local economy.
“They’re a great corporate citizen,” he says. “They contribute well to our communities. In terms of a lot of things. The coal industry statewide has built a billion dollars worth of schools.”
The coal industry employs 5,000 people in the mines of Campbell County, the center of mining operations in the Powder River Coal deposit. The average income here is $60,000 a year, Lubnau says.
“Gillette has become a marvelous place to live. Very low crime rate. Marvelous facilities, swimming pools, recreation centers, running tracks, parks.”
Stop in at Lula Belle’s Cafe to hear from one former railroad worker in Gillette. Most mornings you’ll find Norman “Duffy” Dane in his usual chair, talking about life, coal, free market capitalism and whatever else comes to mind.
Overwhelmingly, people here are proud of the coal industry. It is one of the key economic forces that transformed Gillette from a cow town along the rail line into a mini-metropolis amidst these dry rolling grasslands.
The sun’s setting as LJ Turner takes me out for a walk along the creek near his red-roofed ranch house. He has good smile wrinkles and talks about as slowly as a cow chews cud. Behind him a couple dozen head of his red angus cattle graze in a nearby pasture.
Turner and his wife Karen run cows and sheep on this 10,000 acre ranch about 10 miles from the Black Thunder mine. He’s lived here all his life, and his family’s been here since 1918. Makes for a lot of memories.
“When I was small we got our ice out of the creek for the household use,” Turner says, pointing down the hill to the creek. “My job was to tamp sawdust around the blocks of ice and we’d have enough ice that it would keep our household needs for the year.”
Now the creek is a muddy trickle. Turner believes mining has destroyed the underground aquifers that feed this creek and others on his property. He’s extended his well down 1,000 feet beneath his house and it’s still running dry.
Turner’s also upset that some of the nearby grazing land he used to lease from the Forest Service has now been leased to the coal companies to be mined.
But alongside the local impacts, he worries about what burning more fossil fuels will do to the global climate. He says the impacts here are already clear.
“The first winter that Dad was here in 1919. He said it never got above 20 below for six weeks,” Turner says. “But this last winter it froze up, but it didn’t freeze hard. We had green grass in February and it’s changing, it really is.”
Turner looks out at a mule deer grazing nearby and pauses for a minute.
“I’m scared of it. I’m just scared of it.”
The forces that dictate how much coal is mined and where it ends up being burned are far away from these dry grasslands.
U.S. coal consumption is at a 40 year low, largely because of a boom in cheap natural gas.
But international demand for coal is expected to rise 65 percent in the next 20 years or so. The majority of that increase will be in Asia.
That has Powder River Basin coal companies looking for ways to get their product across the Pacific as quickly and cheaply as possible.
And they’re eyeing the Pacific Northwest as the fastest route.
Story and audio by Ashley Ahearn. Photos and video by Katie Campbell.
Thursday: How the Northwest could effect Wyoming’s economic fortunes.
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