Miners left without jobs with the closure of two of Campbell County’s biggest coal mines are facing a changing reality in the nature of the coal industry, Gillette residents agree.
Residents said although the coal industry has traditionally been a stable source of income and employment, the dropping demand for coal has changed that.
“The coal jobs have historically been the stable jobs,” said Alison Gee, a Gillette attorney. “Now we’re shifting to an environment where we have to look to oil and gas to try and provide some of the stability for our families. And as you know, the oil and gas markets just aren’t that way. They’re very volatile because of the world economy.”
About 600 miners lost their jobs several weeks ago when Blackjewel closed the Belle Ayre and Eagle Butte mines. Efforts are being made to secure funding to return the mines to operation.
If those efforts fail, many of those who lost their jobs will probably leave the community, predicted Ken Anthony, a retired miner.
“You’ve got two to three kids at home and you’ve got a big old house payment and car payment and all of a sudden that stops,” he said. “It’s pretty scary. When they lose their jobs, it really makes a big effect on the whole county. If they can get the money and re-open (the mines), it will be fine. If they can’t, more than likely, most of (the miners) will leave.”
Gee noted that while some companies are offering jobs to Blackjewel’s former miners, most do not have the resources to offer the same level of salaries or benefits.
Tom Lubnau, a former speaker for Wyoming’s House of Representatives, said the mine closures show the state needs to work to offset the diminishing demand for coal.
“We have to, in some way, take control of our own destiny,” he said. “If we can boost the market in a certain way, develop the technologies that we need to use to market our resources, then we should do that.”
In the meantime, Gillette’s residents are doing what they can to ease the burden on the unemployed miners, said Trey McConnell, manager at the Railyard Restaurant.
“The people here, in bad times they bond together, they help one another out,” he said. “It’s one of these areas where you can kind of rely on your brothers and sisters. It’s just a very tight-knit community.”