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A high-powered microscope projects a super-enlarged image onto a computer screen: in this case, a sample of steering fluid from a Caterpillar 797 haul truck, among the largest in the world.

Linda Daniels points out several black spots on a spongy white background. Coal dust. A few brown specks are more granular, and the stringy lines are likely fibers from a filter.

The computerized microscope, along with several more diagnostic machines, helps mechanics and engineers see a problem inside large engines and transmissions before they develop into bigger, more expensive problems.

The coal specks detected in this steering component aren't catastrophic. A report along with the image will be sent via e-mail to the customer and a customer representative, perhaps with a recommendation to somehow reduce exposure to coal dust.

Daniels moves on to examine the next sample, one of hundreds that come through this laboratory each day.

"You try to detect a failure before it actually occurs, because if you have a catastrophic failure it can cost thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars," said Daniels, laboratory supervisor for Wyoming Machinery Co.

Daniels is among some 400 employees at Wyoming Machinery's sprawling 500,000-square-foot, full-service campus just west of Casper. The company employs about 400 more workers, counting its locations in Cheyenne, Rock Springs and Gillette.

About half of Wyoming Machinery's 800-member staff was added within the last four years due to the energy boom on top of the steadily growing coal industry.

"That (growth is) just from servicing the mines. It's just huge for everyone in Wyoming," said Jim Anderson, director of parts and service for Wyoming Machinery.

Wyoming coal mines and their 6,900 workers get a lot of credit and attention for powering nearly a quarter of America's electrical supply. In reality, it's the Wyoming coal industry - which includes an additional 18,000 workers at various service companies.

These companies supply and service a wide range of items, including dozers, vending machines, tires, communication systems, 1 billion pounds of explosives annually and tons upon tons of specialized grass seed for reclamation. Mines even contract crews to run trains through the coal silos and load-out facilities.

"A contractor can do just about any job at a mine," said Anderson, who also serves on the Mining Associates of Wyoming board of directors.

Created in the 1970s, MAW provides service companies a powerful networking tool and access to the mining companies themselves. Membership has grown steadily, now at a record 140 members - still just a fraction of the number of actual mine service providers.

The organization is affiliated with the Wyoming Mining Association. Together, the groups hold significant political clout from City Hall to Cheyenne.

"We are absolutely interested in policy decisions," Anderson said.

Cheryl Dittus, chief financial officer for Collins Communications in Gillette and recruiter for MAW, explained that many companies in Wyoming are part of the mining industry, even if mines represent only 5 percent of their customer base.

Dittus estimates that mines make up about 20 percent of business at Collins Communication, including telecommunications, two-way radios, surveillance, fiber optics and telemetry with haul trucks. Some companies may survive without the mining industry, but they would not be as robust.

"It makes for a more stable economy, and it helps us diversify," Dittus said.

With the national recession, overall Wyoming coal production in 2009 could be flat or slightly down for the first time in more than a decade. Mines are focused on reducing costs, which could result in cutbacks for some services and provide more business for those companies that can help mines be more efficient.

Brenda Schladweiler, president of BKS Environmental Associates Inc. in Gillette, noted that despite the potential impacts of the national economic downturn, mines in Wyoming still must meet certain reclamation obligations.

That extends to oil and gas development as well.

"America's need for continued development, as well as world demand, will continue despite the recent recession," Schladweiler said.

Just as the production of oil and gas and coal has boomed in recent years, so has the commitment to reclaim those operations. That means there's a certain amount of guaranteed work out there for professionals who provide environmental consulting, seeding contractors, fertilizer, erosion control, herbicides and grazing management.

So far, business remains strong for equipment sales and service providers such as Wyoming Machinery. This year, Wyoming Machinery will expand its Gillette facility from 40,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet. The expansion will allow the company to increase its equipment rebuild capabilities and expand its hiring and technical training efforts.

Energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at (307) 577-6069 or dustin.bleizeffer@trib.com.

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