Local mines help supply half of nation’s electricity

SOMERSET — Two thousand feet underground and two and a half miles within a tunnel into a mountain, Ed Pagone turned a corner and made a pronouncement.

“This here is the money maker. This here is the bread and butter. This is the longwall,” Pagone said to a visitor.

It sounded like a dramatic introduction, but it was fitting for what was a drama-filled scene. For around that corner, a menacing machine called a shearer was advancing along an 800-foot corridor and grinding 30 inches away from a wall of coal. Its efforts were allowing as much as 1,500 to 1,700 tons per hour of the glistening black mineral — sprayed with water to control dust — to be sent to the surface along a conveyor belt that roared like a train.

“The longwall pays the bills,” James Cooper, president of Oxbow Mining LLC, had said earlier about this contraption, which is responsible for 80 percent of coal production at Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine operations in the coal mining town of Somerset in Gunnison County.

As the 68-ton, carbide-tipped shearer swept back and forth across the corridor’s face, it became plain to see how it was capable of eating into the wall at a pace of 50 to 60 feet per day.

Its mere vibration caused coal chunks to fall as if in fear several feet before it reached them. As the shearer advanced, 139 longwall shields, each held up by two pistons taller than a person, slid 30 inches forward one by one. The shields provided overhead support and protection for the nine or 10 miners collecting coal from the newly grinded face. The earthen roof behind them collapsed as they and the machine proceeded farther into into the coal seam, creating yet a new cavity.

An occasional ground-shaking “bump,” as Pagone called it, signaled the earth releasing pressure as the slow erasure of the coal seam continued.

The longwall, the center of this mine’s operation, also is the first step in a process that helps contribute to a national coal supply providing about half of America’s electricity. Oxbow miners and officials wonder how many people stop to think about that, at a time when some denigrate coal as a dirty fuel source contributing to climate change.

“We’re prejudiced, but right now we think the coal industry is under a public siege as far as public opinion and public reputation,” Cooper said. “Today, if the United States wants to do without coal, they’re going to have to turn off a lot of lights and other things.”

Pat Smuin, a section foreman, paused from helping open a new section of the mine for a longwall operation to talk about coal miners’ work in helping provide what he said is an affordable energy source.

“I think we work hard for the product we produce,” he said. “… It’s tough conditions, it’s a tough lifestyle, but I think we all take a lot of pride in what we do.”

Altogether in 2008, the 1,000 or so workers in the Elk Creek, Bowie No. 2 and West Elk mines of the North Fork Valley were responsible for producing about 14 million of the 32.4 million tons of coal produced in the state.

For Somerset, coal mining is a tradition that dates back to 1896, as a sign at the entrance to the unincorporated community of around 100 homes proclaims. It’s bound not only by mountains on each side of a narrow valley, but by the overhead conveyor systems, silos, railroad tracks and other external reminders of the mines that plumb the interior of those mountains.

As in other coal-producing regions, the community’s relationship with the industry is a conflicted one, marked by a history of mine fatalities and labor battles, but also an appreciation for the jobs the industry creates for people in and around Somerset and the other economic benefits of mining.

Harold Mlakar Jr.‘s dad worked in the mines for 40 years, and the younger Mlakar also did for a few years before calling it quits due to back problems.

“I don’t think you could drag me back in one. I love the mines, though,” Mlakar said as he paid a visit to Somerset’s Loose Moose Saloon.

“I’ve seen too much of the bad stuff,” he said, thinking back to fatal cave-ins and other mine incidents.

At the same time, Mlakar appreciates the coal the mines produce.

“I’d get cold in the winter without it,” said Mlakar, who heats his home with coal.

And when asked about the coal dust that stains the sidings of homes and prompted another Somerset resident to complain to a reporter without wanting his name used, Mlakar said matter-of-factly, “Dust, that’s something you’ve got to live with in a coal mining town.”

Just across town, resident and Oxbow employee Christopher Marellano said he likes the small-town life after growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

As he and his brother Albert, also an Oxbow worker, replaced a water pump on Christopher’s truck, Christopher said mining work is dirty but good-paying.

He added, “It’s safe if you watch yourself, if you pay attention to all of the hazards. It’s like a family down there; you take care of each other.”

Albert said the job offers new challenges each day.

“You don’t know what Mother Nature’s going to give you,” he said.

“You’ve got to respect Mother Nature,” Christopher added.

Pagone said he also likes the diversity each day brings to his job as coordinator of the mine’s conveyor belt system.

Pagone is a fourth-generation miner whose two brothers also mine. He’d like his own five kids to further their education and pursue other lines of work, but he tried college and found out getting a degree and following a different career path wasn’t for him.

“I’d probably be making a decent living, but I don’t know if I’d be happy. It’s always a challenge,” he said of his job. “Every day is different.”

As if on cue, Pagone interrupted the tour he was giving to pull over his truck in a dark mine passageway and find out why a conveyor belt wasn’t running.

Along the ceilings of mine passageways, reflective tape indicates emergency escape routes, and lines of overhead string offer miners a route to the surface they can follow with a hand in total darkness. Such measures serve as reminders of the hazards miners face while helping supply energy to fellow Americans.

Still, Delta resident Kevin Jerome said he feels safe in his job, which involves operating a “continuous miner” machine used to dig into walls and open new areas underground.

“It’s a pretty good life. If you’re going to go, you’re going to go, no matter where you’re at. That’s my theory,” he said.

Philosophizing aside, mining is just what Jerome does, what he has done for 18 years now, going back to when he worked the graveyard shift as a high school senior.

“If I could get you guys to step away,” Jerome then says, before firing up his machine.


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