When the Bridger Underground Coal Mine shuts down in November, 92 workers will lose their current jobs, down from the 94 reported by the mine’s owner earlier this month.
For Rock Springs, a city of roughly 22,000, the closure is a mass layoff. But it’s an expected one.
“This is not surprising news at all,” said Shannon Anderson, staff attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “It’s been in the works for years. It really is just partly geology, partly economics. And it is not directly driven by the coal plant retirement decisions.”
Bridger Coal Company, a subsidiary of energy company PacifiCorp, told Bridger mine workers in 2016 that the mine’s federally leased area would be exhausted by December 2021, and that it would not pursue a new lease to extend the mine’s life.
The company reaffirmed those plans in a letter sent to the mayor of Rock Springs on Sept. 3, announcing that the mine would be permanently closed “on or after November 19.”
“There’s not anything controversial about it,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
“It was an operation that fed the Jim Bridger power plant right there,” Deti said. “There’s a lot of coal in that area, and they just found an area of coal that was best mined underground. They had a little plan to do it over a 10, 12 year period — and that’s what they did.”
Bridger Coal Company has been curtailing the number of underground mine workers for years in anticipation of the 2021 closure. Since 2017, 53 underground mine employees have transferred to the surface mine, and another five have transferred to other PacifiCorp subsidiaries, said Tiffany Erickson, the company’s media relations manager.
Of the 92 remaining workers who will be impacted by the mine’s closure, 15 will move immediately to jobs at the neighboring surface mine, and 10 will retire, Erickson said. The company expects 10-12 additional positions to open at the surface mine before the underground mine shutters.
The expected transitions and retirements still leave upwards of 50 workers lacking a clear path to employment after November.
“That’s just the nature of a surface mine versus an underground mine,” Anderson said. “Not everybody is going to be able to work at the surface mine.”
The Institutional Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the union representing the affected miners, declined to comment on the mine closure.
A few underground mine workers will likely move to new positions within PacifiCorp, Erickson said. To help the rest find new employment, Bridger Coal Company held a job fair on Thursday and Friday, during which 60 employees interviewed with five of the mine’s “competitors” — three of them local, the other two from out-of-state.
It’s too early to tell how successful the job fair was, or how many underground mine workers will be able to stay in Rock Springs, Erickson said. But she believes that news of the impending closure has been communicated effectively over the last five years.
“We wanted to be transparent and make sure our employees knew, you know, what was coming down the pike,” she said. “We’re just really trying to make sure we’re being very proactive and making sure that that transition process is as smooth as possible.”