Both Routt and Moffat counties, which have led the state in coal production for nearly 40 years, have taken a back seat for the past two years to Gunnison County in coal production per state.
The changes speak not only to increased production in Gunnison County, but also to slightly decreased production in Routt County, said Chris Carroll, coal geologist for the Colorado Geological Survey.
Surface mines in Routt County, including Seneca Coal Company, have hit steep terrain and so are finding coal production more difficult and slower, Carroll said.
Meanwhile in Gunnison, two mines were very productive in 2002, and when one became less productive, there was a third mine to replace it in 2003. Underground mining with huge machines that can "cut coal like butter" is giving the Samborn Creek Mine and the Elk Creek Mine the advantage, Carroll said.
Routt County's Twentymile Mine is Colorado's most productive mine, with 8.13 million tons of coal mined during 2003, according to a report from the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology.
Twentymile is under contract to be purchased by Peabody Energy, which also owns Seneca and is the world's largest private sector coal company.
Seneca, which is the primary supplier of coal to the Hayden Station Power Plant, produced 1.5 million tons of coal last year.
How long Routt County will stay in second place is hard to tell, said Dan Ellison, a Routt County Commissioner who sits on the Mine Land Reclamation Board.
"We may just end up at No. 2, but I think if we continue to keep a similar number of folks in the business and continue to operate in a similar manner that we have, that piece of the economy is still going to be in good shape," Ellison said.
In 2003, Routt County produced 9.6 million tons of coal, Moffat produced 6.8 million tons, and Gunnison produced 11.6 million tons, according to the report from the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology.
The year before, Routt County produced about 9.4 million tons of coal, Moffat produced 7.4 million tons, and Gunnison produced 9.8 million tons.
In the previous decades, Routt and Moffat traded the No. 1 coal producing spot back and forth. Routt ruled the state's coal production from 1997 to 2001, in 1995, and also from 1963 to 1981, Carroll said. Moffat was No. 1 for the years in between.
Ellison said Routt County was "fortunate" to have another economic sector besides tourism that provided jobs and added balance.
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