Colorado still a major player in coal mining industry |

Colorado still a major player in coal mining industry

Post Independent/Kelley CoxMiners at the Elk Creek Mine listen to Superintendent Randy Litwiller during a communication team meeting in the lamphouse prior to starting their shift. The lamphouse is where miners plug their lamp batteries in at the end of their shift to recharge them.

Coal may not be king in Colorado, but it’s still a major player in the U.S.

A handful of underground coal mines remain in Colorado, and those mines are churning out large quantities of coal.

In a state where coal mining started in 1859, it’s sometimes referred to as Colorado’s first industry. Locally, coal mines started producing in the late 1800s in areas like New Castle, Harvey Gap, South Canyon, Carbondale, Redstone and Somerset.

Times have indeed changed. There are now only seven underground coal mines in the state. Colorado ranks No. 6 in the nation. Wyoming is No. 1.

There are more than 2,100 people employed in Colorado coal mines.

Three underground mines are currently operating near Somerset: Elk Creek, West Elk Creek and Bowie. The three mines, which are owned by three separate companies, employ more than 850 miners and produce 50 percent of coal in Colorado.

According to 2004 statistics, more than 39 million tons of coal was produced in Colorado. In the state, Elk Creek Mine was No. 1 in productivity per man hours, and No. 3 in the U.S. Elk Creek produced 6.5 million tons in 2004. The Foidel/Twenty Mile mine in Routt County ranked No. 5 in the U.S. in productivity but was the state’s top coal producer at 8.5 million tons.

Coal production for underground mines changed dramatically when the longwall system was implemented.

Elk Creek Mine Superintendent Randy Litwiller said the longwall is more efficient.

“The longwall is two to three times faster than the continuous miner system. It changed the way coal was mined,” he said. The longwall system improves production and doesn’t require as many employees, he added.

The longwall system uses a large blade that goes back and forth, sheering the coal off onto a conveyor belt. The Elk Creek longwall is 800-feet long and utilizes 139 hydraulic shields that have the strength to hold up to 800 tons of weight.

Litwiller, who came to Oxbow in 1992 after working for Mid-Continent Resources in the Redstone area said the longwall’s production ability is clearly demonstrated by comparison.

He estimated in Mid-Continent’s peak year, there were 1.2 million tons of coal produced. There are other factors involved including the slope of the mine, the top of the coal vein and other challenges that production crews face.

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