Think of a coal miner and you might see a steely-eyed man in a hard hat, his face and clothing blackened with carbon. But in the North Fork area, where coal mines have operated for more than 100 years, Kathy Welt is one of the most recognizable faces in the industry. For almost 35 years, Welt has seen coal mining through the good times and bad, shifts in the market, mine closures, and tragedies.
Welt is currently the senior environmental engineer at the Mountain Coal Company's West Elk Mine in Somerset. During her time she has worked at several mines and spent five years in the oil and gas industry. She's also served on almost a dozen boards and committees. Most recently she was appointed in January to the Bureau of Land Management's Southwest Resource Advisory Council, representing energy and mineral development.
Because of her vast experience and knowledge of the area's mining history, Welt is often called upon to speak on behalf of her employers and the industry. She serves as liaison to county, state and federal governmental agencies, is often quoted in the media, and gives public presentations. Last Thursday she spoke at the weekly Rotary Club of the North Fork Valley meeting about the current state of coal mining in the valley.
Welt and husband Terry raised three sons in the North Fork area, where they currently raise cattle outside of Hotchkiss. They are involved in 4-H shooting sports, and she is a 26-year member of the local Beta Sigma Phi sorority chapter. She grew up in coal-rich Virginia, but chose to study forestry after participating as a Girl Scout in a tree planting project in Prince William Forest. "I thought that was pretty interesting," Welt said.
One of the two top forestry schools in the nation is in Virginia, and the other in Colorado. A John Denver fan, and anxious to leave home, after two years at a community college she transferred to Colorado State University in Fort Collins. In 1980 she earned a bachelor's degree in natural resource management. That summer she landed an internship with the U.S. Forest Service "in a podunky little place called Paonia," where she spent three summers as a forest technician at the Paonia Ranger District.
In 1982 she was offered an engineering position underground with one of the local mines, but went to work for the Federal Highway Administration on completion of Highway 133 over McClure Pass. "My family begged me not to go underground," said Welt.
Later that year she was hired by Colorado Westmoreland, which operated the Orchard Valley mines, splitting her time as an environmental specialist, materials foreman and human resources specialist.
In October 1982, Exxon-Mobil pulled out of the oil shale industry in what became known as "Black Friday." Western Colorado's energy industries flailed. The one thing that kept Westmoreland going, said Welt, was its long-term coal contracts.
When West Elk began applying for long wall mining permits, she was hired to work in planning and permitting. In 1991, long wall operations began. The pick-and-shovel days were over, said Welt.
In 1999, she went to work for Oxbow on permits for the Elk Creek Mine. From 2002-2007 she worked in oil and gas with Gunnison Energy Corporation and Oxbow Mining. That year she was elected to the Club 20 board of directors.
In 2009, she returned to the West Elk Mine. In recent years production has decline to its lowest levels since the 1980s as coal-fired plants are shut down due to federal regulations, said Welt. Following a mine fire in 2012, Oxbow permanently closed the Elk Creek Mine. In 2016, Bowie Resource Partners idled its Bowie #2 Mine. But West Elk limped along.
"Who would have thought that two of three of the largest mines in the state would close," Welt told the DCI. With power plants closing, the long-term coal contracts that carried the mines through in the 1980s went away, leaving companies operating month to month. "It's kind of difficult when you have a $500 million investment, to not be able to sustain that investment with long-term contracts," she said.
In 2015 West Elk went from 398 full-time employees to 323. They were on track to produce 5.2 million tons of coal, but by the end of the year had just 1.2 million tons in sales. In January, 2016, Arch Coal, which owns the West Elk Mine, filed for bankruptcy. "This time last year we weren't sure that we would survive," said Welt.
To avoid layoffs the mine needed to sell at least 3.3 million tons by April, but didn't reach that goal. In June, they laid off more than 100 workers and let go of local contractors. At their lowest point of the year they were down to 202 employees.
By October Arch Coal had successfully emerged from bankruptcy. "We were just creeping along," said Welt. But they finished the year strong, selling 4.1 million tons of coal. The last half of the year they produced coal at a rate of six million tons per year, but with 100 fewer employees. They were able to do it, said Welt, because of "an amazingly talented group of people."
West Elk is now "in survival mode," but it's operating in the black heading into 2017 and hopes to show a profit, said Welt.
"I feel very blessed and fortunate to have worked with a great group of people over the years," said Welt. They include some of the leading attorneys, among them former Colorado Senator and U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar.
Welt is especially proud of her reclamation work. The Paonia-based Western Slope Conservation Center has gone for the past two years on reclamation inspections, and West Elk's clean-up work over the past five years has been recognized for its excellence. The company plans to be released from its surety bonds in the near future, said Welt.
In looking to the future of North Fork coal, the mines that didn't survive the recent downturn aren't likely to return, but hopefully, the existing markets can sustain those that did, said Welt. She believes the industry will go on. "Electrical production by coal is not going away. In 50 years, maybe, but not abruptly."
North Fork coal powers both domestic and international generators and serve industrial customers, according to the Arch Coal website. Welt believes there is a market for the area's coal. It's no secret, she said, that the North Fork Valley produces "some of the best quality coal in the nation." It's a high-heat, low-sulfur bituminous coal, making it the hottest burning of the coals. That means less coal is required to generate energy. It also contains little to no mercury. These are the things that environmentalists are most concerned with, she said.
In looking to the future, "We think that if coal's going to be burned, it needs to be our coal," said Welt.