Northeast Wyoming reels from mining layoffs

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WRIGHT (AP) — The day the layoffs came, a cigarette and a cold beer could do only so much.

At Hank’s Roadside Bar and Grill in Wright, Thursday could have been a normal day. ESPN and Fox News were on the TV screens, a midday crowd sipped Coors Light. But the folks inside who still had jobs in the mine didn’t want to talk about the friends who were now out of work or the mine they’d soon have to go back to.

Instead they talked about how working in a coal mine was like working with family, and that times had been good before, and they’d been tough before, and that if they were down now they could come back again.

They were the lucky ones, they knew, for now.

Both Peabody Energy and Arch Coal announced Thursday they were cutting 15 percent from North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder Mines. The totals amounted to more than 460 jobs in northeast Wyoming.

“It’s just devastating for a community,” said Wright Economic Development Coordinator Brandi Harlow. “We’re such a small, tight-knit community. Everybody in Wright is touched by coal mine jobs.”

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Wright was started as a coal mining town, Harlow said, and it’s been through ups and downs before.

To this day, it continues to be a place in the heart of the Powder River Basin dependent on the minerals industry.

But life in a coal town doesn’t stop at the mines. There are the schools, the bars, the hotels, the mom and pop shops whose livelihood comes from the mine’s success and demise can come from its failures.

The mood was dark the day before the pink slips came out at the mining facility where Jason Johnson works as a janitor. Heading into work, he expected Thursday to be even worse. It’s been like nothing he and his co-workers had experienced before.

“Everybody’s families are going to be impacted dramatically,” Johnson said. “Pockets are going to be hurt. People are going to have to buck up, get any job they can take.”

Shelby Vinot spent most of his life in the town and now works as a field technician at a mining machine repair company. They’d seen the cuts coming and have work lined up through the summer, but after that the unknown returns. Jobs have been slowing down in the past year.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Are we still going to be here or not? Or do we have to move and find some other work?”

People have already been leaving town, said Sandy Willison, an assistant manager at the Big D gas station and store. With a husband who works in a mine, the cuts hit home to her. They haven’t been through layoffs like this before.

She tried sounding upbeat on the day the layoffs came, but she said most of the customers were depressed. They asked one another if they knew anyone out of a job.

“This town, if it keeps going, is going to end up being a ghost town,” Willison said. “This was all started by mines. So if the mines are gone, the town’s gone.”

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In Gillette, about 40 miles up Highway 59, Mayor Louise Carter-King also tried to sound positive. Coal and oil have provided such a strong source of employment that the self-styled “energy capital of the nation” didn’t have to look toward other industries, she said.

The layoffs leave the town with a pool of skilled laborers to go with its good schools and advantageous location along a major interstate.

“Maybe we were all complacent a little bit. Maybe this can wake us up. Things can be done different,” Carter-King said. “Wyoming has heard all along, diversify, diversify. But when you don’t have much of a labor force it’s hard to start a whole new ballgame. Before we barely had to breathe. Usually this place is just jumping.”

Coal will remain vital to the region’s future, the mayor said. She pointed to the Integrated Test Center at the Dry Fork Station in Gillette, where teams of scientists will compete to find economic uses for the carbon in the power plant’s emission stream.

Thursday’s announcement nevertheless represents a grave blow to the community, she said. Carter-King’s husband works at Peabody’s Caballo mine, where 20 people were recently laid off. Everyone in the community, she said, knows someone who has been affected.

“It is difficult and heartbreaking to hear about these layoffs,” she said. Then she added a defiant note. “Gillette is a city that rallies around our neighbors. We’ll make it.”

And at the Fireside Lounge in Gillette, the layoffs meant a second pint of beer from Black Tooth Brewing was on the house. It’s always been a family owned bar frequented by employees in the energy industry, said Scott Edwards, the restaurant’s manager.

One of the men having a drink at the bar knew he had an uncertain fate.

Clint Hoffman had to be up early Friday to head to Wright. He said he had worked at Black Thunder for about 10 years. The people he worked with weren’t just his crew, they were his family, and he’d had friends laid off already. In the morning he would find out if he’d join them.

Some of his friends had spent their money lavishly, but Hoffman said he’d been reasonable. This could become a ghost town, he said, like it had been in the 1980s. He didn’t think he should be fired after all the years of work he’d put in. He didn’t think until now a fate like this was possible.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if I get laid off tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t know.”

By |April 1st, 2016|

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