Doomsday Finally Comes to Wyoming's High-Flying Coal Country
For the past four decades, Wyoming’s coal miners have been the nation’s most fortunate. With little more than a high-school degree and a few weeks of training, they could make upward of $80,000 a year. They worked open-pit mines, meaning that unlike their counterparts in Appalachia, they were spared the dangers of collapsing tunnels or black lungs. Their product—subbituminous coal from the Powder River Basin, in the northeast part of the state—was coveted due to its low-sulfur content and eventually claimed a dominant 40 percent of the U.S. market.
Even as shale's recent boom cut into coal’s bottom line—gas and coal now each provide 33 percent of the nation’s electricity—Wyoming stayed the course. Most of the state's miners live in the gleaming prairie town of Gillette. The prevailing sentiment there has long been that other Americans are woefully uneducated about coal’s necessity and that far too much has been made of climate change. People held to the notion that the coal downturn was entirely the doing of President Obama’s administration and that the industry would soon rebound. Neither Wyoming Governor Matt Mead nor Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King discusses the possibility of the state going the way of, say, West Virginia. The glass in coal country remained mostly full—right up until the layoffs started.
“This isn't a natural disaster,” Mead said last week, “but it's certainly a disaster in terms of the personal lives of those miners.”
Arch Coal, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, laid off more than 200 Wyoming miners last Thursday. The move came shortly after Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal producer, told 235 local miners not to report to work and instead to show up at one of a series of meetings, including a gathering on April 1 at the Holiday Inn Express in the small oil town of Douglas.
It was not an April Fool’s joke. The miners arrived around 8 a.m., many of them in jacked-up pickup trucks and hooded sweatshirts. A small group of reporters standing out front of the hotel were frequently shooed away by a Peabody representative. One by one, the miners walked inside. They emerged carrying folders labeled with the name of their former employer that contained details of their severance packages. The laid-off miners included a single father of three, a heavy-set guy preparing for surgery, and a young Montanan in a Carhartt hoodie who expressed interest in Nevada’s gold mines. An older man in cowboy boots didn’t feel much like talking. A bearded guy called Peabody’s executives “crooks.” He said he’d been given a two-line slip of paper telling him to come to the meeting. “The whole way they handled it was sleazy,” he said, adding a few expletives before stalking off.
Frank Thompson, a single father, said he might leave the state to support his son. He had an idea why Peabody spread the layoff meetings across multiple dates and locations. “They don’t want a bunch of us angry guys in one place,” Thompson said with a smile.
Kyle Christiansen emerged from the hotel, folder in hand, and suggested that Wyoming build a power plant “on every hilltop,” then close the borders of the state and make everyone else come in to buy electricity. He wore a Sturgis motorcycle rally shirt and said he had recently been hospitalized for stress-related arrhythmia. He had also been forced to sell his beloved Harley. Christiansen blamed coal’s downturn primarily on President Obama, then he enlarged the discussion to touch on the influx of refugees, the treatment of veterans, and the government’s behavior during the Oregon land protests.
Christiansen teared up as he began to recite the Gettysburg address. Asked whom he hoped would win the upcoming presidential election, he replied: “God.” A discussion of the fact that in 2014 former Peabody Chief Executive Officer Gregory Boyce was given a raise, to $11 million in total annual compensation, did not elicit similar emotion. “If the company determined he’s worth that, and he’s earned it, that’s great,” Christiansen said. “It’s Peabody’s money, they should be able to do what they want.”
Peabody and Arch did not return calls seeking comment. Attorneys in Missouri filed separate civil suits against the companies last year on behalf of employees. Both suits sought class-action status, and both alleged that the coal giants had mismanaged miner retirement funds by continuing to invest in company stock even as the coal market faltered. The suit against Arch was stayed in January, after the company filed for bankruptcy; just days before filing, Arch paid executives more than $8 million in bonuses. Many observers expect Peabody, which missed a debt payment in March, to file for bankruptcy as well. Miners hoping for payouts from the falling coal giants might be in for a long wait. Representatives for both companies did not respond to requests for comment on the suits.
Wyoming Governor Mead held a press conference amid the layoffs to bemoan the state’s woes. “When we have a natural disaster in this state, we put together the appropriate team to respond to it,” he said. Without backing away from his commitment to coal, the governor advocated for a more diversified economy. In the past such ambitions have touched on the possibility of data centers lured to the state by the promise of cheap energy. Just last week, however, Google, Amazon.com, Apple, and Microsoft publicly supported the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which puts the coal industry squarely in its crosshairs. All four companies have also pledged eventually to run their data centers off renewable energy.
Wyoming’s Workforce Services department recently went into emergency-management mode, opening temporary centers to help miners sign up for unemployment, take classes at community colleges, and find health insurance. Back in Douglas, one these employment triage sites had been set up in a classroom in a community college. Two Workforce Services employees and an insurance expert eagerly awaited laid-off miners, but none showed up. Another Workforce Services office, next to an Arby’s and a probation office, was also empty of miners. Down the road, at the Holiday Inn, a new crop of pickups sat in the parking lot, along with a rusty Honda Accord with a "Friends of Coal" sticker in the window. It had seen better days. Another miner stomped out of the hotel, head down, Peabody envelope under his arm.