San Juan College receives $1.4 million grant

Federal funds aim to help workers in coal industry transition to other fields

James Fenton
A vehicle transports coal on Oct. 9, 2013 at Navajo Mine in Fruitland. The Navajo Transitional Energy Company, which owns the mine, was recently awarded $147,900 under the Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, program.

FARMINGTON — San Juan College received $1.4 million as part of a federal grant designed to help workers in the coal industry transition into other jobs.

The money was part of a $14.5 million grant — shared by 36 entities nationwide — from the Obama administration’s Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, program.

The program is intended to address anticipated economic impacts to areas that generate power from coal mining as the nation shifts away from coal, largely due to federal regulations intended to reduce greenhouse gases and haze. The Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration with the Department of Labor and the Small Business Administration, announced the program in March.

Penny Pritzker, U.S. Department of Commerce secretary, said in an Oct. 15 press release that the grant money will help coal-based communities transition to new forms of energy.

“Through the creation of the POWER Initiative, the Obama Administration has committed to helping communities successfully adapt to our changing energy landscape,” Pritzker said in the release. “The POWER grants announced today by EDA and its federal partners will help each community create new jobs, diversify its economic portfolio, and better compete in the 21st century.”

The program is intended to address local and regional economic impacts to mining areas as the country uses less coal due to factors including increased use of natural gas, falling costs for renewable energy, increased energy efficiency, and tighter air-pollution regulations, according to the release.

San Juan College will use the funding for the Four Corners POWER Initiative, an effort to add necessary equipment to help programs in target careers that will help train students into select careers like health care, information technology and other energy sectors.

College President Toni Pendergrass said in a phone interview that the funding will help the college train or retrain students into new careers and diversify the local economy.

"We're helping to bridge (students) into high-demand, high-growth sectors like other forms of energy, information technology and health care," Pendergrass said. "This will help diversify our economy and transition workers to areas (that don't have) such a strong dependence on fossil fuel, mainly coal."

The college has targeted job sectors in fields that need workers and pay a salary commensurate with coal mining. Average annual salaries for coal miners at the two local mines 20 miles west of Farmington are $70,000 or more.

The Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, based in Gallup, received $327,300 to coordinate a regional study on impacts to the local coal industry and opportunities for regional economic sustainability.COG Director Jeff Kiely said the organization will hire a firm to help produce a report expected to be released in about a year that will assess the coal and related industries and make recommendations on ways to diversify the energy production in the region.

"It will be collaborative, looking at current and historic markets and to the future, both positive and averse," Kiely said in a phone interview on Monday. "The report will lay out promising practices and emerging initiatives to help the Four Corners stay strong going forward."

Kiely said his group would seek input and ideas from a variety of sources, including the college, energy industries, Farmington-based Four Corners Economic Development and economic development organizations in Gallup and Cibola County communities.

According to the release, the Navajo Nation also received a POWER grant.

The tribal government — whose business entity, Navajo Transitional Energy Company, owns Navajo Mine near Fruitland — was awarded $147,900, according to the release.

But both Mihio Manus, spokesman for the office of the president and vice president, and Peter Deswood, a senior economic specialist for the Nation, were not able to confirm the tribal government had actually secured the funding.

"Thus far, I cannot verify that the Navajo Nation has received the grant funds," McManus said in an email late Monday.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.