GILLETTE — Rumors about the coal industry are common in northeast Wyoming where strip mining provides 5,000 direct jobs and supports about three times that in the mine services sector. But when Arch Coal filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, Robert Frieze, who works at Arch’s Coal Creek mine, realized that talk of layoffs might be true. Then the number of trains loaded at the company’s Coal Creek mine dropped by half.
Frieze and his partner Megan Fink began preparing. Then came Black Thursday — March 31. Arch laid off 230 workers at its Black Thunder mine. Peabody Energy announced 235 layoffs at its North Antelope Rochelle Mine on the same day. Frieze survived the cut, as the layoffs didn’t include Coal Creek. But he and Megan still have a sick feeling in their gut.
“Right now we’re just scared, because who is to say if he goes to work tonight and has to come home right away?” Fink said Saturday afternoon as Frieze slept to prepare for another night shift.
For 40 years, Gillette, Campbell County and all of Wyoming have feasted on revenues from mining coal — spending billions of dollars on roads, pipelines, schools and other public facilities, and socking away billions in savings. The corpus of Wyoming’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund stands at more than $7 billion (bolstered mostly by coal, oil and natural gas). The Wyoming State Treasurer’s Office says it invests a total $19 billion.
But since last week’s layoffs, many families here are asking what’s left for the workers?
Not much. Not directly. There are no state-initiated jobs programs for those who are laid off in the energy sector. Unlike Alaska, there is no mineral royalty payment to Wyoming citizens. Instead, the state spends millions on infrastructure, K-12 and secondary education, various economic development strategies and on promoting the coal, oil and gas industries themselves.
“We’re on our own out here,” Peabody miner Glen Bertrand said.
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