Leaving a Life in the Coal Mine Behind – Part One

Coal Mining081

Our readers will be happy to learn that there  are people interested in the retraining of out-of-work coal miners. It restores one’s faith in the American spirit to read that  jobs that suit them may be available to these unemployed workers. As the state sheds coal jobs, local businesses and nonprofit groups are trying to create work in fields like alternative energy. Miners may have just the skills for scaling wind towers and putting solar panels on roofs. And that’s no small thing in Wyoming and West Virginia.

Since this article from The New York Times is almost 3000 words long, we will present it in four separate postings.

By DIANE CARDWELL, Oct. 1, 2017 for The New York Times

From the mountain hollows of Appalachia to the vast open plains of Wyoming, the coal industry long offered the promise of a six-figure income without a four-year college degree, transforming sleepy farm towns into thriving commercial centers.

01retrain3-superJumboStudents playing soccer near a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times 

But today, as King Coal is being dethroned — by cheap natural gas, declining demand for electricity, and even green energy — what’s a former miner to do?

Nowhere has that question had more urgency than in Wyoming and West Virginia, two very different states whose economies lean heavily on fuel extraction. With energy prices falling or stagnant, both have lost population and had middling economic growth in recent years. In national rankings of economic vitality, you can find them near the bottom of the pile.

Their fortunes have declined as coal has fallen from providing more than half of the nation’s electricity in 2000 to about one-third last year. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs and moved on — leaving idled mines, abandoned homes and shuttered stores downtown.

Now, though, new businesses are emerging. They are as varied as the layers of rock that surround a coal seam, but in a twist, a considerable number involve renewable energy. And past jobs in fossil fuels are proving to make for good training.

In Wyoming, home to the nation’s most productive coal region by far, the American subsidiary of a Chinese maker of wind turbines is putting together a training program for technicians in anticipation of a large power plant it expects to supply. And in West Virginia, a nonprofit outfit called Solar Holler — “Mine the Sun,” reads the tagline on its website — is working with another group, Coalfield Development, to train solar panel installers and seed an entire industry.

Taken together, along with programs aimed at teaching computer coding or beekeeping, they show ways to ease the transition from fossil fuels to a more diverse energy mix — as well as the challenges.

Absolutely No Catch

GILLETTE, Wyo. — John Davila, 61, worked for 20 years at Arch Coal’s Black Thunder Mine in Eastern Wyoming, a battered titan from an industry whose importance to the region is easy to see — whether in the sign in the visitors’ center window proclaiming, “Wyoming Coal: Proud to Provide America’s Energy,” or in the brimming train cars that rumble out of the Eagle Butte mine on the outskirts of town.

But in April last year, at a regular crew meeting in the break room, he was among those whose envelope held a termination notice rather than a work assignment. “They called it a ‘work force reduction,’” said Mr. Davila, whose straight, dark ponytail hangs down his back. “Nice way to put it, but it still means you’re out of a job.”

So a summertime Thursday morning found him, along with a couple of dozen other men and women, in a nondescript lecture room at a community college, learning how a different source of energy, wind, might make them proud, too.

The seminar was the last of three that week organized by Goldwind Americas, which is ready to provide as many as 850 giant wind turbines for a power plant planned in the state. The company was looking for candidates, particularly unemployed coal miners like Mr. Davila, to become technicians to maintain and operate the turbines.

Watching a video at a Goldwind America seminar in Gillette, Wyo. The company recruits potential technicians to maintain and operate turbines at a power plant planned in the state. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

The program, which is to teach the basics of wind farm operation, maintenance and safety over two weeks in October, would cost the participants nothing but their time, organizers said. Those who wanted to test their potential would have a chance to climb a 250-foot tower that Saturday at a farm Goldwind owns in Montana. And if they completed the full program, they would have certifications that could open the door with any employer they chose.

“There’s absolutely no catch – you don’t like me, you don’t like Goldwind, that’s O.K.,” David Halligan, the company’s chief executive, told an even larger crowd in Casper the day before. “There’s going to be opportunity across the country.”

It is a message of hope that has been in short supply, especially after the loss of more than 1,000 jobs in the region and the bankruptcies last year of three major producers. But while coal’s prospects have been dying down, wind development is poised to explode in the state, which has some of the world’s strongest and most consistent winds. And while coal mining jobs have fallen to historic lows nationally in recent years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that wind-energy technician will be the fastest-growing occupation, more than doubling over the next seven years.

wind-turbines-get-better.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smart

Though most of the coal jobs lost last year have since returned as companies have emerged from bankruptcy, the insecurity surrounding the industry remains. “It’s been a little scary when you’ve got people all around you getting laid off,” Brandon Sims, 37, an Air Force veteran who works for an explosives company that serves the mines, said outside the lecture room. “You never really know when your day to get the pink slip is.”

To be continued

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