Discovering Steamboat: Going underground at Twentymile Mine

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Since joining the 2013-14 Leadership Steamboat class this fall, I’ve been looking forward to the day we would be traveling to Peabody Energy's Twentymile Mine for a tour.

Discovering Steamboat

Lisa Schlichtman's "Discovering Steamboat" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Schlichtman here.

After months of anticipation, that day came this past Friday as our group of 17 had the opportunity to not only learn about the inner workings of a coal mine but actually had the chance to venture down below the earth to tour the mine itself.

The trip to the mine, which is equidistant from Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek and Hayden, was a little treacherous in itself. Fearless leader Randy Rudasics drove the car I rode in, and I have no idea how he managed to keep his Edge on the road in near-whiteout conditions. He went slowly and eventually delivered us safely to the mine, and soon afterward, we began the nearly two-hour-long hazard training we were required to complete before making the trip underground.

I found myself a little on edge after going through the steps we would need to take should some emergency occur while we were down in the mine. It made the dangers coal miners face on a day-to-day basis more real to me as we learned about self-contained, self-rescuers that would provide us with oxygen and about “life lines” that could be pulled down from the mine ceiling should we need to exit the mine’s labyrinth on foot.

I was impressed with the mine’s safety measures and learned that Twentymile Mine not only produces some of the lowest-sulfur coal in the world, it also has one of the best safety records in the industry. Mining officials from other countries, such as Japan and Australia, routinely visit the Routt County mine to learn about its safety practices.

Before we began the process of donning the gear we were required to wear into the mine, we were asked what we envisioned the mine would be like. I have to admit, images of black-faced miners attacking the mine’s walls with picks and shovels came to mind, and someone jokingly asked who was going to carry the canary when we began our descent.

I was surprised to learn that we wouldn’t be riding on some small miniature tram that ran on rickety tracks into the mine, but instead, we would be traveling 1,500 feet below ground in full-size, diesel, extended-cab pickups along the miles of tunnels that create a subterranean roadway system.

Above ground, we viewed a detailed map of the route we would be taking to our destination at the mine’s longwall. Escape routes were marked on the map, and there were even escape vehicles parked underground at various places along the tunnels.

Before being allowed into the mine, we put on white, disposable Tyvek suits, hard hats with headlamps, safety glasses, belts with personal SCSR units attached, boots and a bright yellow safety vest. We also wore a device that digitally tracked where we were in the mine, and we also adhered to a manual system that required us to have an assigned number and turn over a small card as we headed out that indicated we were in the mine. Upon our return to the surface, we turned the card back over, signaling our exit from the mine.

Once we drove down into the mine, I lost all sense of direction and felt a little like I was lost in a maze lit only by the pickup’s headlights, but our driver and tour guide — a miner who had been working at Twentymile for 14 years — said he knew every turn in the mine’s tunnel system like the back of his hand.

Our descent was a little eerie and almost apocalyptic. On every side, we were surrounded by darkness. The tunnels we drove through were 12 feet high and 20 to 22 feet wide with wire mesh and roof bolts holding back the earth around us. Instead of complete blackness, white crushed limestone dust is tossed on the tunnels’ walls and ceilings to reflect light, suppress coal dust and prevent coal dust explosions. Our path was intersected at various points by ventilation curtains, which channel fresh air into the various areas of the mine.

When we exited the truck to view the work of the longwallers firsthand, the roar of equipment tearing into the earth was deafening. A massive shearer cuts along the coal seam and produces chunks of coal, and a large conveyor belt system moves the product up and out of the mine as the longwall crew keeps a sharp eye on the task at hand. The longwall itself is 1,100 feet long, 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall.

The process, which is computerized, was dizzying in its power and speed, and when asked about the dangers and risks associated with their jobs, the miners I spoke with all described a “brotherhood” and a “culture” where crews worked long hours side by side, looking out for one another.

Near the end of the tour, I asked our guide if we could turn off the pickup and switch off our headlamps to experience the darkness of an underground mine. He obliged, and we were immediately plunged into complete blackness unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It reinforced the sense of the mine’s otherworldliness and made me anxious to get back up above ground to light, air and sky.

In touring Twentymile, I gained respect for the work of a coal miner. Under strenuous conditions, local coal miners are performing at their peak, ensuring Twentymile remains the top-producing coal mine in Colorado. The mine also is Routt County’s largest property tax contributor and one of its largest employers. Miners produce a resource that fuels local power plants, which in turn provide the bulk of our electricity here and across the state.

And going forward, I don’t think I’ll ever flip on a light or power up my laptop without remembering my trip down into the mine.

To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @LSchlichtman

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