As Colorado coal plant shuts down, a town dependent on coal for jobs grapples with a bleak-looking future
Craig, Colo., is losing its coal plant, and people who live in the town in northwest Colorado fear this is the beginning of the end for their community.
CRAIG, Colorado — In a quiet valley tucked away from Colorado’s bustling ski resorts, far from his hometown in northern Mexico, Trinidad Loya found a way to support his family’s American dream: coal.
He, his son and grandson — all named Trinidad Loya — all have worked for the coal plant in Craig, Colorado, the eldest Loya having started there more than 30 years ago. The plant employs 180 people, paying higher salaries and providing far more job security than most other jobs in the rural area in northwest Colorado about 40 miles from Steamboat Springs.
That’s all about to change. The coal plant is closing, along with the mine that feeds it, employing nearly another 115 workers.
All will lose their jobs over the next decade, according to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. which partially owns and operates the Craig Station.
That will mean a tough transition for the Loyas and other workers who’ve made a life in Craig, a small town with a population of 9,000 that draws elk hunters from around the world to its scenic surroundings.
“A power plant job, especially in a rural community like Craig — those are what I call cradle-to-grave jobs,” said Richard Meisinger, business manager of the 111 chapter of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, which represents the bargaining unit at the Craig plant and nearly 4,200 members across Colorado and Wyoming. “People hire on there when they’re young anticipating that they are going to work at that power plant there their entire workable lifespan.”
Across the United States, similar scenarios ares playing out. After decades of relying on coal for jobs, taxes and a way of life, the towns face uncertain futures as new federal and state laws force the retirement of fossil fuels because of the worsening effects of human-caused climate change. Only a few towns have come up with a viable plan to transition to cleaner energy, like one in Wyoming chosen for a Bill Gates-backed nuclear power plant.
In Craig, much of the infrastructure of the town and of Moffatt County is supported by the coal plant workers, who make an average of $100,000 a year, compared with a $40,000 average salary countywide.
Some workers will retire. Others, like the younger Loyas, need to find other work. They might leave Craig.
In just this past week, the middle Loya began an apprenticeship position at another Tri-State owned facility across the state in Pueblo — 300 miles from Craig, where he, his wife and their 3- and 7-year-old children live. When he’s not working as a sub-station technician there, he plans to make the five-hour drive home to see his family.
Loya, who took a pay cut for the position, is holding out hope that a job opens up at the Craig plant. For now, he’ll stay with his sister in Pueblo and hope for the best.
Craig sits in the heart of Colorado’s western front. Cows and lambs graze on farmland. Deer traverse downtown Craig at night, munching on grass. In winter, the town, dubbed the elk hunting capital of the world, attracts tens of thousands of hunters who stay in the town’s hotels and frequent its restaurants.
Moffatt County includes millions of acres of public land, and its mineral deposits of high-volatility and low-sulfur coal brought the industry to Craig and sustained families for decades.
The town has reinvented itself before. Once, it was a last stop on the Denver and Salt Lake Railway that allowed for nationwide agricultural exports like wool. The area became a money-maker for the oil industry and then a source of uranium. The oil fields and uranium mills left Craig by the 1960s as demand changed.
But, by the 1970s, coal was king in Colorado, with some companies buying up mines and others, like the Colorado-Ute Electric Association, buying land to build a power plant that eventually became the Craig Station.
Now, the town is changing again.
The owners of the Craig Station decided to close the 1,285-megawatt, three-unit plant over a 10-year period. Unit 1 and 2 — owned by PacifiCorp, Platte River Power Authority, Salt River Project, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and Xcel Energy — are to close in 2025 and 2028. Unit 3, solely owned by Tri-State, will be shut down by 2030.
As the coal industry goes, so will nearly half of Moffatt County’s gross domestic product, Peterson said. It could affect services like healthcare, fire departments, infrastructure and upkeep for neighborhoods and roads.
According to Ray Beck, a former Craig mayor and Moffatt County commissioner, the county’s 2020 assessed value was nearly $430 million, with 62% of that from the top 10 taxpayers, all energy-related businesses.
Of the prospect of losing that, Beck said, “We can’t recover from that.”