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Coal mining towns are switching industries to survive

Rural mountain town
Posted at 12:36 PM, Nov 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-12 12:36:19-05

Climate change is not just changing our atmosphere, it is changing the fabric of many rural towns nationwide.

As the United States has moved to renewable sources of energy, it has strained the coal industry as many coal mines have had to close due to lowering demand.

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, coal mine employment in the US fell 39% between 2009 and 2016. It has forced many remote towns to adjust their economies to find and create new employment opportunities for its residents.

“There are a lot of special places, but this is definitely a special place,” said Brant Thibodeaux, who lives in the remote town of Paonia, Colorado. “The people that have been here know that and they want to stay here so they will do whatever they can to prevail.”

Paonia is tucked away in the North Fork Valley region of Colorado. It is about an hour and a half from Aspen, and more than four hours away from Denver.

For decades, the region has relied on coal mining to support its economy. Local leaders estimate prior to 2010, one coal job represented at least five other jobs in the region.

In 2010, however, two of region’s three coal mines shut down. As the energy industry began progressing toward renewable sources of energy, coal mines left and so did families. Enrollment at the local high school fell by more than a quarter. It left Paonia with the question, “How do we survive?”

The answer they found, was right beneath them.

People in Paonia began relying on their agricultural roots for income. In 2018, Thibodeaux opened up a winery, Aquila Cellars, that now produces the world’s high-altitude Pino Grigio. It is not necessarily natural for the region’s climate as frequent frosts and long-lasting droughts threaten the livelihood of the vines, but it started a company that earns Thibodeaux a living.

Since he opened, four more wineries in the area have opened as well.

Down the road, Big B’s Apple Orchard is producing a full-blown agrotourism experience. The orchard allows visitors to pick during harvest season as well as camp on its land that sits squarely in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks.

The orchard’s owner is also in the process of building a pond to allow families to enjoy water activities during the summer months, when it frequently invites bands to play on a stage constructed next to the orchard.

“We’ve seen the foot traffic go up 30% [each] year,” said Chelsea Peluso, who has been working at the orchard for more than a decade. “When I first started working here, I used to bring a book. It was so slow. And now, I really need to work for my money,” she said, laughing.

In 2020, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute put out guidelines to help the hundreds of other towns nationwide going through a similar economic transition away from coal. The guidelines include investing in local leadership, entrepreneurship, restoring old mines, digital infrastructure, and bankruptcy protections for residents

It adds on to the many states that have introduced legislation to protect workers in transitioning communities over the last two years. Bills in Illinois, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Vermont have all been introduced in the state legislature.

“[Had we not adjusted], I think Paonia would’ve been another one of those forgotten towns,” said Peluso.