As closure nears, miners grapple with next steps
CASPER — With four weeks left before Wyoming’s last underground coal mine shutters, the employee transition is well underway.
The long-anticipated closure of the Bridger Underground Coal Mine was originally expected to impact 94 mine workers, according to the layoff notice sent to the Rock Springs City Council a month ago. The number of affected staff has since fallen to 89 and is continuing to shrink as staff leave to start new jobs.
“Employees are aware that the mine will be closing,” said Tiffany Erickson, media relations manager for Rocky Mountain Power, whose subsidiary Bridger Coal Company owns the mine. “There will be some that are transferring over to the surface mine, but there’s also employees that are searching for new employment.”
So far, little else has changed. Fifteen workers remain set to move to jobs at the surface mine, and the company still projects that another 10 surface mine positions will open before the underground mine closes.
Rocky Mountain Power hosted a job fair last month, where the workers it’s not retaining were able to interview with other mining companies. It’s not yet clear how successful the event was. Two of the five companies were from out-of-state, meaning new hires would have to leave Rock Springs for work. But Rocky Mountain Power is also collaborating with Western Wyoming Community College, located in Rock Springs, in an effort to help underground mine workers access vocational training programs. Many will qualify for federal retraining funds targeting displaced coal workers.
“The biggest benefit of having community college so close to Bridger is the fact that we can train these laid-off employees to stay in the community,” said Clifford Wittstruck, the college’s vice president for student learning.
Welding, plant operations, commercial drivers licenses and electrical and instrumentation engineering tend to be attractive to former mine workers, Wittstruck said.
Employees’ existing skills also translate well to other mining jobs, including in the trona industry, said Rick Lee, CEO of the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce.
The underground coal mine is less than 40 miles east of Rock Springs; the Green River Basin trona patch is roughly the same distance to the west. That means workers who make the jump to trona can continue to live in Rock Springs.
While the four local trona companies don’t have the capacity to hire more than a handful of underground mine workers right away, Lee expects dozens more positions to open before the end of the decade.
“If the expansion continues, and if the economy continues to do well,” he said, “I think more jobs will be available sooner than later.”