Coal decline hits fuel’s Western stronghold

January 25, 2013 • Business

This Jan. 16, 2013 photo, Mike Cooley, one of 59 workers laid off from the Decker Coal mine along the Montana-Wyoming border, poses for a photo while discussing his future job prospects at his house in Sheridan, Wyo., with his wife and 2-year-old son, in the background. Hundreds of millions of tons of coal remain at Decker, in the heart of the nation’s largest coal-producing region, but slackening demand prompted its owners to lay off almost half its workers this month. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

SHERIDAN, Wyo. (AP) — Hundreds of millions of tons of coal, packed into seams up to 60 feet thick, are still to be had beneath the rock-strewn hillsides speckled with snow that rise up along the remote Montana-Wyoming border.

Yet for Mike Cooley, the days of drilling explosives into the ground to blast the fuel from the earth are over, long before he ever expected. The 41-year-old thought his job as a “powderman” at the Decker strip mine would take him into retirement.

Now he’s looking for new work, after he and 58 other miners were laid off from Decker in recent weeks to add to several hundred jobs reported lost in the past year from the nation’s largest coal-producing region.

As a dispute over West Coast ports hobbles the industry’s ability to reach booming markets in Asia, cheap natural gas is undercutting coal in the U.S. — and putting some of the small towns in coal country in economic peril.

Wringing his calloused, idle hands and staring into the winter sun through the kitchen window of his trailer house in Sheridan, not far from the mine, Cooley said he’s reluctant to leave with the eldest of his three children poised to graduate Login to read more

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