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Coal under Trump: one miner’s perspective

Don Stahly, a third-generation coal miner, has been working underground in Colorado's West Elk Mine since 1999. He says he understands his job will not last forever, but is happy with what President Trump is doing to bolster the coal industry. Dan Boyce

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At 11 p.m. on a recent Friday night, the West Elk Mine outside Somerset opened its gates. Cars and trucks started rolling out, signalling the end of a coal mining shift in this rural pocket of Colorado.

Workers had been opening up a new section of the mine 4 or 5 miles underground, a tough job made tougher considering that the current economics of the coal industry means fewer workers at the mine.

Miner Don Stahly, 39, was catching a ride home with a friend. Freshly showered and wearing a Denver Broncos ball cap, he was ready to go home and sleep. Saturday would be his first day off in nearly a month.

Stahly has watched the West Elk Mine, like many around the country, suffer through difficult layoffs. But at least West Elk is still open. The two other mines in Colorado’s mountainous North Fork Valley have closed in recent years. The valley has lost more than 700 jobs since 2010.

A coal train waits outside the West Elk Mine in Somerset, Colorado.

Jobs like these are held in high regard by President Trump, who idealizes a traditional view of American life based on industry and lifting up the image of the blue-collar working man. No working man has been more lauded under this administration than the American coal miner.

Trump has been trying to fulfill his campaign promise to bring back mining jobs, working to roll back environmental regulations and increase mining on federal lands. Still, the economics for coal aren’t looking good, between decreasing demand and low prices for natural gas and renewables.

Stahly has lived in the coal-rich North Fork Valley nearly his whole life. He has connections to almost everything, including the grocery store in nearby Paonia where he went shopping on that first day off. He worked for Don’s Market in high school. He said a lot of kids did back then, since the store was flexible with school and sports schedules.

Brad Holt is the co-owner of the market, which has been family-owned in Paonia since the 1930s. He said for decades, the mines provided lots of stable, high-paying jobs for the area; Stahly makes almost $100,000 a year working at West Elk.

Holt’s grocery is noticing the downturn, and profits are dropping.

“Well, I don’t know if you’d call it profits,” he laughed. “Sales are down from where they were.”

Paonia’s community character has been shifting for a while now to more of a Colorado mountain tourist destination, complete with organic farms, coffee shops and yoga studios.

That all brings its own benefits, but it doesn’t bring families the way coal did. The local school district is down almost 350 students from a decade ago.

Up on a small hill overlooking Paonia, past orchards touting tree-ripened peaches, sits the American Legion Post 97. Stahly stopped by Saturday night for the drawing of a local raffle. He bought 25 $1 tickets, which were tossed with all the other raffle tickets in a round wooden cage spun with a hand crank on the side.

He didn’t win.

The Legion’s head bartender, Pam Daugherty, moved to Paonia in the 1980s from Kentucky.

“I’m a coal miner’s daughter, sister and wife three times over,” she said.

Pam Daugherty, American Legion Post 97 head bartender, says she’s lived through a lot of change in Paonia since moving here in 1984 and isn’t too happy about the character of her community today.

She doesn’t like the town’s changing character, saying she no longer shops or goes downtown. She said she doesn’t know the people there anymore and doesn’t share their views. In the Legion, though, it still feels like old times.

“It feels like this is ours,” she said. “They can close the mines down. They can put in their health food restaurants or whatever. But here, we are comfortable.”

There were a number of other miners in the bar with Don, buying each other beers and joking around. Don described it like a family and his blue eyes lit up when he talked about the service they provide.

“Every time you flip on a switch, every time you watch TV, that’s what we give,” he said.

The U.S. still gets about a third of its electricity from coal, and mining it is physical, dangerous and dirty work. In Stahly’s case, that work is done miles underground, cut off from the outside world.

That was the case on Election Day last November. Stahly was working a night shift when his manager told the entire crew to stop what they were doing so he could tell them Donald Trump had won the presidency.

“We literally actually shut down, all went back to the kitchen and got to have 20-30 minutes to ourselves [to celebrate],” he said.

The job can feel thankless, even vilified these days. Having the most powerful person in the world as your booster is a welcome change.

“I mean, think about it, if you were beat down for eight years or 10 years, when somebody has something good to say about you, you’d say, ‘You know what? That’s great,’” he said.

The West Elk Mine has recently made some modest hires. Taking it all into account, Stahly is almost optimistic.

On their day off, the miners stayed out late, yet still made it up for an early Sunday morning golf game. Other than that, Stahly used much of the day to rest. By Sunday night, he was back to work in the mine on a new shift: 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for the next two weeks.

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