The depths of the New Elk Coal Mine near Trinidad are white.
The miners who work several thousand feet below the earth’s surface are dusted in white powder, too. While their noses and cheeks are blotted with black, their regulation overalls are covered with a white resin that is sprayed on the mine walls deep below.
It was black, not white, that covered miners a century ago. Back then, miners breathed in methane and coal dust and lit their tunnels with open flames.
The New Elk Coal mine opened four months ago 30 minutes west of Trinidad, in an area famous for its coal camps and miner history. The mine brings the promise of 500 jobs, business for local hotels, and a new generation of coal miners.
A need for steel in Asia has brought mining culture and some prosperity back to Trinidad and to one of Colorado’s poorest counties, Las Animas. The operation, bought by Canadian company Cline Mining in 2008, is the only metallurgical coal mine operating in Colorado, producing coal that can be turned into steel.
The mine, an underground operation, stretches over 2,000 acres beneath the Bosque del Oso Wildlife Refuge, according to manager Ron Thompson. On the surface, it takes up 250 acres with a warehouse, a silo and two large piles of raw and clean coal.
Unlike in the old days, when mining was plagued by union disputes and deaths from black lung and machinery, 21st century mining has eliminated many occupational hazards. New Elk miners are hired by TK Mining of Delta, a contractor company that is not unionized. A starting miner makes about $33 an hour.
Until recently, miners went underground by walking down a long, steep hill. Now, they ride down into the mine on a cable car, equipped with tracking devices and respirators. They use large machines that gnaw into the earth.
And they spray a white resin on the mine walls to suppress the coal dust, which otherwise gives off a flammable methane gas.
Although it features new equipment, the new mine reminds Trinidad locals of the town’s legendary past.
“The mine is gonna bring it (Trinidad) back to the roots,” said Cliff Wiening, who works at New Elk, in September. “Everything is based off the mines.”
The mine sits on countless layers of Cretaceous period coal seams, as well as the Allen Mine, directly below New Elk, which opened in 1952 and was sealed in 1996.
Until the 1950s, Trinidad was one of the most populous towns in Colorado, with immigrants who came from all over the world to work in the coal mines. All the mines closed after World War II, except one, the Allen Mine.
When the Pueblo steel mills shut down in the 1980s, the Allen Mine closed, and Trinidad went into decline. For years little remained of the mining life beyond the memories and the local high school mascot, a miner.
Like most of the 250 men working at New Elk, Wiening had been there for a couple of months. Unlike most of the men, he is a Trinidad local. Many of his coworkers are hired from the Western Slope, from Delta and Paonia.
New Elk miners work 12 hour shifts for seven days at time, and then have another seven days off. Andrew Tyner from Delta has been coal mining for seven years, since he was 18.“After a while you get used to it. It’s just like any other construction job,” he said.On his off days, Tyner goes home to Delta. While he’s in Trinidad he lives in a cabin in Stonewall, a town to the west of the mine.
Most of the miners rotate between their home towns and Trinidad, said safety manager John Lewis. Finding places for the miners to live has posed problems, Lewis added. They get special deals at the local La Quinta Inn & Suites, and some share cabins in Stonewall. If they don’t have cars, the company hires a bus to shuttle them to and from Trinidad. Another 100 workers are expected to join the company by December, said Thompson.
“I don’t think Trinidad’s ready for miners in terms of housing,” Lewis said of the lack of housing options. “It’s terrible.”
In mid-October a miner lost both of his legs in an underground accident. The mine has continued its operations, but the company is shaken, said financial manager Troy Ainsworth,
For Trinidad native Florie Massarotti, a former manager of the Allen Mine, accidents like that are why he retired from mining. As a certified instructor for the Mining Safety and Health Administration, Massarotti ran plenty of accident investigations in his day.
“I never want to investigate another fatality,” he said.
For the most part, however, the mine runs like clock-work.
The day shift at New Elk begins early. At 6 a.m. miners squeeze themselves into a man-trip, a cable car with a steel roof and cramped steel benches. They take a short ride down 2,500 feet into the mine, which has electric lighting. Each miner has a “puck,” or tracking device on his helmet, and carries a respirator as protection from coal dust.
Miners used to hack at a coal seam with picks. Today, they use a continuous miner, a monstrous machine with blades that cut into the earth. After the machine has done its work, a roof bolter secures the mine walls. Finally, miners spray the white resin.
By noon, the miners are back above ground for lunch. Smoke breaks aren’t allowed — signs that caution “Positively No Smoking” hang from all the above-ground structures.
On a September Monday, the miners gathered in the dispatch center to eat. The walls around them were hung with maps of the underground mine, an old-fashioned timecard rack, and a whiteboard indicating which miners were on shift.
Twenty-two year old Michael Hilt, on his third day of mining, sat in the back of the room with another young miner. He explained the stratification of the room — the guys with green hard-hats, like his, are new to mining, and the guys with black hats are old hands.
The men in blue hats, like 36-year-old Joe Bear from La Veta, are foremen. Bear’s overalls, inscribed with his name, were powder-white from the resin.
For Lewis, the safety manager, and few other miners at New Elk, mining is a family profession. Tyner followed his older brother into the mines, and Lewis followed his father and four brothers. Lewis, who has been mining coal for 30 years, said miners are a tight-knit group. He’s worked with many of the same men — across three states — over the course of his career. All he ever wanted to be was a miner, he said.
“Back home, we were a small mining community,” he said of his hometown in Utah. “Me and my buddies wanted to work like coal miners — like our dads.”
NOTE: Employment applications for the New Elk Mine can be found online at www.tkmining.com. On the home page, click the "employment" tab on the left, and fill out the application. Applicants can also get a TK Mining application at a work force center.
--Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261 FACEBOOK Ryan Maye Handy TWITTER @ryanmhandy