For years, Gillette native Will Bruns worked at coal mines in the Powder River Basin, a region that produced almost half of the nation’s coal for power generation last year.
But this month, electricity in the 25-year-old’s own home was cut for five days, leaving his wife and two young children in the dark. Paychecks from his bankrupt employer, Blackjewel LLC, stopped coming when the operator shut down two Wyoming mines on July 1. Recently, Bruns’ internet and cable TV went out too. His wife, Meladie Kelly, started visiting the local food bank.
As updates on a bankruptcy case involving coal operator Blackjewel have trickled out of a distant courtroom this month, hundreds of Wyoming families have remained anxious for answers. For many, the uncertain weeks since the mines halted coal production have not been easy.
“We’ve been struggling,” Kelly said Tuesday.
Bruns worked as a truck driver for Blackjewel but had been healing from a shoulder injury at the time operations ceased at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines. He had anticipated returning to work in August to assume a new position as a blade operator and “broke down” when he heard the news of the closures.
“I think a lot of people are just going to move on, move forward,” Bruns predicted the day after losing his job.
Sixteen days after the closure, Bruns had yet to secure a job. In the meantime, the bills kept piling up for the family, Kelly said.
Blackjewel is the sixth coal producer in Wyoming to file for bankruptcy in recent years. The majority of bankrupt mines have been concentrated in the state’s lucrative Powder River Basin. But the once stable coal empire has shown signs it may be faltering, as utilities pivot away from coal to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources.
Both of the couples’ families have been in the coal mining business for generations and Wyoming has always been home, Kelly said. But with few job prospects in Gillette, they started looking toward Sheridan, Montana and South Dakota as places to uproot and move to.
“If we have to move, we move,” Kelly said. “A job is a job.”
Kelly works at Dollar Tree and asked her boss about picking up more shifts to offset the sudden loss of income. But even with her efforts, she only can work 17 hours a week, she said. With an hourly pay of $9, supporting her two children, ages 3 and 4, has been almost impossible, she said.
Against all odds, Kelly has tried to restore as much normalcy as she can to the household.
“We’re trying to keep them distracted,” she said. “They’re at the age that they don’t understand everything.”
Rick Mansheim, department manager of Workforce Services in Gillette, said Blackjewel workers have continued to seek resources from the agency every day since the closures.
“We’re still steady from open until close with people coming in,” he said.
Last week, a job fair was held with about 40 employers. Mansheim estimated about 450 people, a majority former Blackjewel workers, attended.
Cloud Peak Energy, a neighboring coal company with two mines in the Powder River Basin, reported hiring 60 out-of-work Blackjewel workers last week. But to Mansheim, that’s not necessarily a sign of future job security for coal miners.
“Blackjewel had posted jobs with us the week before they (closed),” Mansheim said. “They were going to hire too. That’s why it caught some of us flat footed.”
Despite the hardship, Kelly has tried to stay positive.
“Everyone is still hopeful that (Blackjewel) will reopen,” she said. “Like I said, we’ve been struggling, but I have a great family and Will’s family understands and helps out if they need to.”