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Wyoming coal community imagines a new future

Cooper McKim Jun 3, 2019
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Mayor Tony Tomassi standing on the edge of a small residential community in Kemmerer.
Cooper McKim/Wyoming Public Radio

Jim Bills has lived in Kemmerer, Wyoming, for the past 40 years. Bills worked at the Kemmerer coal mine as a truck driver, laborer and driller until his retirement. The mine, along with the power plant it feeds, are central to the local economy.

Recently, however, a large utility — Pacificorp — put the local power plant on a list of possible closures in three years.

“You know, a year ago, the town was going smooth. Same thing it’s been doing for 100 years; nice place to live, everybody’s happy. We didn’t see it coming,” Bills said.

The local coal mine’s owner, Westmoreland, also filed for bankruptcy last year, causing retirees like Bills to lose out on medical benefits. The news shook Kemmerer, said Tony Tomassi, the city’s mayor.

“I thought, well, I’m seeing what it says, but this can’t be real.”

The southwestern Wyoming city is struggling to imagine life without coal at its center, Tomassi said. City leaders like him are racing to come up with plans that would stop it from becoming just another ghost town.

In December, Pacificorp announced it would be cheaper to switch to renewables or gas than keep running over half of its coal plants. No final decisions have been made about plant closures.

Kemmerer’s Naughton Power Plant was already scheduled to close in 2029.  But several scenarios in this new plan have it closing seven years earlier —in 2022. Tomassi said the closure would mean the loss of 126 jobs and others connected to it.

View of the Naughton Power Plant from the workers’ parking lot.

“It’s all the auxiliary industry that goes around with that,” he said, like trucking companies, cement suppliers, and electricians. 

And the largest, the Kemmerer coal mine, employing more than 250 people. It relies on Naughton as its primary customer. If both the mine and plant went under, it would mean the loss of hundreds of jobs and the two largest taxpayers in the county.

Tomassi said all the uncertainty is hurting business. His car dealership isn’t selling as much. According to a local realtor, property values are declining.

In December, Tomassi and other city leaders came together to discuss plans for a revitalized Kemmerer — plans that don’t lean quite so heavily on coal. They hired a new city administrator, Brian Muir, to focus on that.

“Careful strategic planning is really even more important for our community than it ever has been, because we’ve been in the coal for decades,” Muir said.

He helped put together an action plan with an aggressive timeline. Its three main points: diversify the economy, increase manufacturing and boost quality housing.

Muir is looking at tourism opportunities like attracting visitors interested in fossils. 50 million years ago, the area was full of tropical lakes.

Robert Bowen, who owns a local fossil shop, said quarries nearby have accessible fossils that the city could take advantage of and market.

Wyoming Fossil’s owner Robert Bowen showing a fish fossil he found nearby.
Wyoming Fossil’s owner Robert Bowen showing a fish fossil he found nearby.

“It’s not a cure, but it will help. Every little bit we can do is going to help us,” he said.

Bills said he loves living here. He’s always known it as an energy city, though, and finds it hard to imagine something else.

“Hopefully, there are solutions, but not three-year solutions. Nothing’s going to happen in three years, and this town will just dry up, blow away,” he said.

Pacificorp is expected to make its closure decision for the Naughton Plant on August 1.

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