Tighter regulations, environmental lawsuits and a pivot toward cleaner-burning natural gas have knocked communities like Somerset, Colo., on their heels.
SOMERSET, Colo. — For more than a century, the economy and identity of this tiny community wedged into the mountains have been defined by the coal heaps, railroad tracks and deep underground mines that filled train cars with coal and miners’ pockets with money. “Welcome to Somerset,” says the blue sign at the entrance to town, “Coal mining town since 1896.”
Maybe no longer. The Elk Creek Mine, towering over Somerset, once employed about 200 people, but it has been shut down since a collapse and underground fire in December 2012, with just nine employees left to manage its dismemberment. It is selling off its equipment, handing over its water treatment plant to residents and weighing whether to tear down the concrete coal silo that looms over the town and close for good.
“Everybody thinks our community is just going to fold and fall down,” said Terry Commander, who runs the local water district. “We have to learn how to be able to stand up on our own.”
Tighter regulations, environmental lawsuits and a pivot toward cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas have knocked coal towns on their heels across the country, raising questions from West Virginia to Wyoming about the future if mines and coal-fired power plants close and jobs evaporate. That future might look something like Somerset.
The community, about 225 miles west of Denver, sprang up after geologists found coal deposits in the late 1800s, and served as a supply camp for the railroad that runs through the valley. Although everyone calls it a town, Somerset is not formally incorporated, and has no mayor or council. Even stilled, the mine remains the town’s defining feature.
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