The country’s two largest coal mines are each laying off roughly 15 percent of their employees. Peabody Energy and Arch Coal said the cuts will affect roughly 235 workers at Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle mine and 230 at Arch’s Black Thunder mine, both in Wyoming.
The layoffs are the first major cuts in Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal producing state, which had, until now, avoided the job losses that have affected Appalachia.
In statements, both companies said the layoffs are in response to weak market conditions for coal. Low natural gas prices, a warm winter and new environmental regulations have all contributed to declining demand for coal.
Financial troubles for the two coal giants have been compounded by large debts resulting from bets on metallurgical coal at the height of the market. In 2015, Peabody posted a loss of more than $2 billion. Arch Coal declared bankruptcy in January.
Kevin Williams, Arch’s president of Western operations, said in a statement, “We have made every effort to preserve as many positions as possible, and this decision was made only after a number of other cost-cutting measures were exhausted.”
For miners, the news didn’t come as a complete surprise. Peabody gave employees letters as they left the North Antelope Rochelle mine, directing them to later meetings in which they learned their jobs had been terminated.
Gail Japp, 64, worked for Peabody for nine years as a haul truck driver before being laid off. Her immediate concern was her mortgage – she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep paying it without another job, and she wasn’t sure she would be able to find a job.
“I’ve lived through a lot of depressions, I’ve lived through a lot of hard times in my years, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” Japp said, adding that if she were younger, she would “probably find another job and move away (from Gillette).”
Asked about the potential for an exodus from the state, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said in a press conference, “We understand that that may happen and it’s certainly contrary to what my dreams and wishes would be for the future of Wyoming.”
But when asked whether the state has a contingency plan if coal mines are idled, Governor Mead said there is no plan.
“We’re anticipating that the business will slow down, but will continue,” he said.
For now, Mead said the state is making resources available to help laid-off miners and keep them in Wyoming.
In the short-term, state agencies, including the Departments of Insurance and Workforce Services, will be open extended hours to help miners with questions about benefits and other employment opportunities.
In the middle-to-long term, Jim Rose, the director of the Wyoming Community College Commission, said the system will be looking at whether colleges in the region need to add to or refine their existing programs to help miners.
“All of our colleges are equipped to do a lot for individuals that may have aspirations and understanding that their careers may need to be advanced through additional training and opportunities,” he said.
Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King echoed that sentiments, saying while the community continues to support the coal industry, it’s important to also look at other avenues for employment.
“We are not standing still. We are trying to bring industry to our community, and opportunities for these people to stay here,” she said.