San Juan Mine sealed as Westmoreland lays off 60, moves to reclamation phase

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times
Coal combustion residuals like fly ash are placed inside open pits left over from when the San Juan Mine was a surface mine. These coal combustion residuals can be seen Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, in a part of the Pinon Pit at San Juan Mine that will soon be reclaimed.

FARMINGTON – Sealing work was set to be completed Nov. 30 at the San Juan Mine as Westmoreland San Juan Mining LLC prepares to lay off 60 employees on Dec. 1 and embark on a six-year land reclamation plan.

Federal officials have completed their inspection of the underground mine sections, and portals and bore holes have been sealed, according to an internal memo received by the Daily Times.

Westmoreland Mining LLC Corporate Counsel Jon Heroux of the firm’s Denver headquarters confirmed Nov 30 that 60 employees would depart the mine on Dec. 1, and that sealing work should be complete.

Heroux did not have information on when other layoffs might take place, noting there would be “ a few more” as workers salvage equipment at the facility in preparation for reclamation work.

Heroux said 51 employees will stay throughout the six-year reclamation process.

Heroux said the company is looking at alternative uses for the mine property, such as a solar facility.

Displaced coal miners, power plant workers ask for help with health insurance costs

“We haven’t come to any conclusions,” he said, noting that the situation of finding an industry outside of coal  is new to the company. “We’re trying to learn to do that.”

“How do we transition to new businesses,” he said, is one question facing the company. “How do we get training for our employees?”

The mine operations ceased on Sept. 14 and the facility delivered its final load of coal to the San Juan Generating Station that day.

Heroux said the mine has received Mine Safety and Health Administration and Bureau of Land Management approvals to close the mine following an MSHA inspection and interaction with BLM officials.

A pronghorn antelope stands in a reclaimed area at the San Juan Mine, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Waterflow.

The closure means the portals, bore holes and the main fan shaft have been sealed.

The mine began as a surface mining operation in 1973 when Unit 1 of the San Juan Generating Station came online, Westmoreland said in a Sept. 13 news release.

The San Juan Mine is pictured in January 2016 in Waterflow

“The San Juan and La Plata mines have been the sole supplier of coal to the San Juan Generating Station for nearly five decades,” the release noted. “ At its peak, the four units of the San Juan Generating Station produced 1,848 megawatts of electricity for millions of households and countless businesses across New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Utah.

The mine eventually became an underground mine with a longwall mining system and it provided thousands of local jobs during the years of its operation.

SJGS carbon capture feasibility study done, but critic thinks plant reopening unfeasible

The generating station shut down Sept. 30 and is being decommissioned, although the City of Farmington and its partner, Enchant Energy, are still moving to reopen the facility with carbon capture technology. That process is at the beginning of an arbitration process between the city, as part owner, and the station's other owners.

Westmoreland CEO Martin Purvis said in the September news release that the discussion is no longer about policy debates surrounding the generating station and mine, but about finally saying “Thank you.” 

“Ignoring all the rights, wrongs, and arguments about the premature closure of this amazing facility, we as a company want to make sure that we say thank you to the men, women and communities that have worked together so effectively over the years to make this mine and generating station a bedrock of power supply in the Southwestern United States,” Purvis said.

The mine’s General Manager Steven Pierro was unavailable for comment.