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Bust Times In A Former Wyoming Coal Boomtown

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The state that produces 40% of America's coal is trying to figure out a new future for itself. Gillette, Wyo., has seen five big coal companies go bankrupt since 2015 and is looking for ways to survive the boom and bust cycles of the industry. Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim reports.

COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: Stacy Moeller spent her whole life working as a coal miner here, and she loved it. It enabled her to provide for her family as a single mom. She's just retired, and near the end of her career, it became evident she got out at the right time.

STACY MOELLER: No, we weren't going to get new trucks or more trucks or we weren't going to be able to get enough people hired.

MCKIM: Moeller worries for her younger friends now hoping to make a career out of coal mining.

MOELLER: So hopefully, they all have a plan B. I just hate to see that happen to Wyoming because there aren't very many plan Bs that include staying in Wyoming.

MCKIM: Gillette has seen about 20% of its mining jobs disappear since 2013. Like its dominant industry, coal, the town itself faces a pessimistic forecast. Boomtowns going bust are a familiar sight in Western states. That's what it looked like was going to happen on the other side of Wyoming to the town of Rock Springs. In the early 20th century, when Union Pacific Railroad relied on coal from Rock Springs, its population boomed from 40 people to over 10,000. Jay Lyon grew up there.

JAY LYON: Everybody was working. The mines were running full blast.

MCKIM: But in the 1950s, everything changed. Union Pacific locomotives switched to diesel or, as some would say, declared its own war on coal.

LYON: There was an expression then that you could shoot a cannon down Broadway or the main street in Rock Springs and not hit anybody.

MCKIM: The mines closed. Employment dropped off. The federal government had to supply food as Lyon remembers kids going hungry. The county is now littered with ghost towns. Mark Haggerty with the research group Headwaters Economics says one-industry towns are inherently vulnerable.

MARK HAGGERTY: The real effort that needs to take place is trying to diversify and reach out and branch out into new sectors, into new ideas that will sustain the community going forward.

MCKIM: That's easier said than done in isolated places like Gillette and Rock Springs.

HAGGERTY: And for those places that don't have those other assets - an airport, a university or a national park - we really don't have a lot of lessons for them because it - there have not been a lot of successful transitions.

MCKIM: Rock Springs survived its coal bust, but diversification away from mining wasn't the solution. Another natural resource, trona, was found nearby. Mining the gritty component of things like toothpaste and baking soda replaced a lot of coal jobs. Here's Jay Lyon again.

LYON: Thank God they were there because it really brought this area back out of the doldrums.

MCKIM: Oil and gas soon became very profitable in Rock Springs, too, and the population is now bigger than ever. But the town continues to look for economic opportunities beyond extractive industries. As for Gillette, the area is pushing hard for new West Coast seaports to open up and connect foreign markets to their coal. Local county commissioner Rusty Bell says it's imperative to diversify the local economy, but it's hard.

RUSTY BELL: Because we didn't start this - or an industry didn't start this, honestly, 20, 25 years ago thinking about, hey; what else can we do with this besides just ship it out of here and burn it?

MCKIM: Coal still employs a lot of people in Gillette, but despite the Trump administration's promise to bring the fuel back, demand is forecast to continue dropping. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects U.S. coal production next year to drop 25% below 2018 levels. In the meantime, Gillette is leaning on coal and oil and gas to sustain itself while it looks for opportunities to diversify and stabilize from the booms and busts in fossil fuels.

For NPR News, I'm Cooper McKim in Wyoming.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLEGE'S "HOTEL THEME PART 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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