Nucla — Brad Campbell took the best job he could after graduating high school, working at the local coal-fired power plant for up to $42 an hour. He got married, bought a house and paid it off in three years.
When he learned Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association would close the Nucla plant early, in 2019, he transferred to the company’s plant in Craig, where he worked as a water chemical technician.
The decision was easy, said Campbell, now 27. It was a six-figure job with a pension and health benefits. Tri-State paid his moving expenses. His wife, a medical assistant, had recently given birth and wanted to stay home with their new child.
But three months after moving, Campbell learned the Craig plant would be closing, too, by 2028.
He returned to the West End, with the challenge of finding work in a region that had lost its biggest employers, the generating station and the coal mine that supplied it.
A community of around 2,100 near the Utah border, the West End is now looking to fill that gaping hole in its economy by looking back to its past as a hardrock mining and agricultural town and forward to a recreation-based economy, a more modest version of tourist-thronged Moab across the stateline.
Far from being down, the region has come a long way in three years, when there was a “palpable” depression in the air and a 40% vacancy rate on Naturita’s main street, said Deana Sheriff, who leads the West End Economic Development Corporation.
The region is building a new school. A uranium mine is operating. Nucla’s main street has an organic grocery store. Naturita’s, 4 miles away, has two cannabis dispensaries, ATV rentals — and just one unoccupied storefront.
“We’re not going to dry up and blow away,” said Sheriff, who works with the West End towns of Nucla, Naturita, Norwood, Paradox, Redvale and Bedrock.
But while predictions that the region would be gutted and abandoned haven’t materialized, neither have the high-paying jobs and tax dollars to replace those lost.
Locals estimate the area’s median income has decreased to the $40,000 range from around $60,000 a year.
Coal workers got new jobs, but the pay is not commensurate with what they earned before, in part because of the region’s remoteness, said Carla Reams, who helped some of the workers find new jobs through an employment initiative funded by the Markle Foundation and Telluride Foundation. Others took early retirement or transferred to plants out of town.
The towns’ fire department and cemetery district heavily relied on property taxes from coal operations, and haven’t found a way to make up that lost revenue.
The cemetery district has $4,700 in fixed insurance, accounting and power costs and received $8,300 in property tax revenue, less than half the $19,900 they got the year before. The main expense is for a contracted groundskeeper and maintenance man.
The district’s board recently raised the price to buy a lot in the 26-acre cemetery to $500 from $200, but it’s not a stable source of funding.
“It’s not like they’re hotcakes, selling left and right,” board president John Nelson said.
The board wrote to county commissioners in September asking how to remedy the funding shortfall. They never heard back.
The West End is set to receive $1.8 million in state stimulus funding to ease its economic transition, a fraction of the estimated $70 million needed to replace the region’s decrepit infrastructure, like Nucla’s decades-old water lines.
The town has a grant to beautify Main Street but doesn’t want to use it until they’ve replaced the asbestos concrete pipes underneath. The pipes have been repaired again and again making them vulnerable to contaminating the water supply.
Reams called it a “slap in the face.”
All but one of Colorado’s coal-powered generating plants are expected to stop burning coal in the coming decade as renewable energy sources become cheaper and state lawmakers push to reduce emissions. The state is trying to extend an economic lifeline to the estimated 11 counties that will be affected, setting aside $15 million in state stimulus funding that must be spent before July 2023.
But the West End of Montrose County lost its coal plant and mine before that $15 million became available, and has already spent years trying with mixed success to shape a new destiny in hemp, heritage tourism and outdoor recreation.
As Colorado’s coal industry takes its last gasp, the region offers a glimpse of the future.
Campbell, the coal worker, moved back to the West End in April, where his now 3-year-old son can be near family. He took over a self-service car wash and works full-time in construction for $25 an hour. The combined income falls short of what he earned at the power plant.
He’d thought the coal industry in Colorado was on the decline after the election of Gov. Jared Polis, who campaigned on a message of ending the use of fossil fuels.
But he transferred to work in Craig because the “job was just so good,” he said. “It was worth that risk.”
The husband of Sherri Farmer, one of Nucla’s four full-time employees, moved to a coal mine north of Meeker owned by Tri-State’s subsidiary Elk Ridge Mining and Reclamation. He works as a mechanic there, renting an apartment and driving back when he can. Farmer’s family has lived in the area for years and she doesn’t want to leave her father since her mother died.
“He just didn’t have a choice,” she said, of her husband. “If you want to work, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Farmer recorded a video of the coal plant imploding last summer. It had been there her whole life. It’s now a pile of rubble along the San Miguel river. She didn’t cry but wanted to.
“How many years of a building and employees — and then it’s just gone like that?” she said.
Tri-State spokesperson Lee Boughey said the wholesale power provider, based in Westminster, was proud of its work supporting the West End community and its employees.
Tri-State’s donations are influenced by factors like “the community’s demonstrated ability to leverage our contributions with existing, local economic development efforts, community support and other available resources,” he said.
The region is no stranger to booms and busts
Nucla began as a kind of socialist utopia in the late 1800s, founded by a Denver-group called the Colorado Cooperative Company. The collective nature of the colony dissolved, but its members helped build a 17-mile irrigation ditch that eventually brought water to the town, feeding farming and ranching operations nearby.
Now, the area is staunchly conservative — a place where most residents owned a gun even before the Nucla town board passed an ordinance requiring every of head of household to.
Mayor Richard Craig, who introduced the gun ownership ordinance, said it was a symbolic defense of the Second Amendment and wasn’t enforced.
National news outlets flocked to him for interviews. He’s been meaning to frame a copy of the ordinance.
The region is no stranger to booms and busts.
It was once home to a prosperous uranium and vanadium mill that supplied the Manhattan Project and supported a more than 800-person company town, with a huge recreation hall that included a church, a shooting range and a library.
But the partial meltdown of a nuclear power plant in 1979 — Three Mile Island — and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster soured the country on nuclear power. The uranium industry collapsed. The company town, Uravan, was declared a Superfund site. It was evacuated and destroyed.
“Wiped off the face of the earth,” said Jane Thompson, who grew up in Uravan and now heads the Rimrocker Historical Society. “Totally gone.”
The long exodus of workers and their families since then is captured in the photos of graduating seniors framed and hung in the hallways of Nucla Jr./Sr. High School. There were nearly 80 black-and-white portraits in 1971, around the heyday of uranium mining. There were just eight in 2014.
“Where we started to see the drop-off was right in here — the mid-80s,” said West End Public Schools Superintendent Clint Wytulka, as he walked past the class photos one Thursday morning. “The ‘70s and ‘80s were pretty good, and that’s when Uravan was really booming.”
The region never fully recovered.
Enrollment at the district has held steady around 240 students in recent years — with between 12 and 18 students in each senior class — but has declined since Wytulka started working there in 1997, he said.
The high school plays eight-man football, pulling team players from both Nucla and the nearby Norwood School District because of the small class sizes. Still, a few serious injuries this year hobbled the team. The season was canceled after a few games.
Nucla and Naturita are two hours from the nearest Walmart, two hours from a hospital, and nearly two hours from the Montrose airport, on a road that takes drivers across three county lines. Several babies have been born in the ambulance on the way to Grand Junction or Montrose. Some residents commute more than an hour each way to work in Telluride’s resorts.
There’s one health clinic between the two towns and one sign that says “Uranium Drive In,” though there’s no longer a movie theater.
Perhaps because of the distance, the region’s residents have long felt neglected by the state and by their county commissioners.
Craig said the people of Nucla are akin to a “redheaded stepchild.”
“The only time (local officials) pay any attention to me is when they want somebody to vote for them or if we do something that goes against what they are doing,” he said.
He sometimes gets “a little upset” at their lack of interest.
The feeling of neglect extends to the state’s $15 million in stimulus funding, which is being distributed through a four-person Office of Just Transition. Lawmakers gave the office $8 million to help communities and $7 million to help coal-industry workers affected as utilities increase their use of renewable energy. The full cost of the effort is expected to top $100 million.
Sara Bachman, the sole practicing attorney in Naturita, said the West End should get more than $1.8 million of the available $8 million because the other eligible communities have not yet had plants and mines close.
She also said the state’s Just Transition office had moved slowly to distribute the funds and put in place cumbersome application processes.
“They’re holding onto our money,” she said. “Why do we have to fight tooth and nail for everything?”
(The Just Transition office may ask lawmakers to extend the deadline for when the $7 million for worker apprenticeships, tuition reimbursements and the like must be spent, because the West End’s workers have transitioned and other plants haven’t closed.)
Wade Buchanan, the head of the Just Transition office and until this summer it’s only employee, said the funding created a zero sum game that was bound to leave some communities dissatisfied.
His office had tried to find an equitable way to maximize what could be a one-time infusion of funds, he said. The federal government has stimulus money to help coal impacted communities, but nothing has been confirmed.
“I feel comfortable that we’ve adequately and appropriately thought about the various impacts,” he said. “Each community has a compelling challenge.”
He “(pushed) back against the idea that it took too terribly long.”
Of 11 coal-impacted counties, the economic impact is expected to be concentrated in northwestern Colorado, where there are four mines and two coal-fueled power plants slated to close or be repurposed. The industry now accounts for 8.2% of jobs — 2,862 — in Moffat, Rio Blanco, and Routt Counties, according to a Colorado Mesa University analysis.
Nucla Station and the New Horizon Mine had around 80 affected employees at the time the closures were announced.
There is optimism about the future
Despite the challenges, many are optimistic about the future of the region, which lies along a mineral belt rich with deposits of uranium and vanadium.
The price of uranium has reached the high $40s-per-pound after years of depressed prices. The Biden administration has expressed support for nuclear energy, which uses uranium.
Prices for vanadium, long used to strengthen steel, could also increase thanks to the mineral’s use in building battery systems that can store wind and solar energy, said George Glasier, chief executive officer of Western Uranium & Vanadium Corp.
Glasier’s company recently resumed operations at the Sunday Mine Complex not far from Nucla and Naturita. It now has 10 employees, but Glasier said it could become fully operational in as little as a year, if uranium prices rise to $60 to $70 per pound and prompt mills to come back online.
At full capacity, he said the mine complex could employ 50 to 60 miners, who can make up to $80,000 to $100,000 based on their experience.
“It doesn’t totally replace the coal plant, the coal mine,” he said. But the prospect of uranium in the West End “is looking the best that it has looked in probably, I don’t know, since 2007 or 2008.”
The mine complex has six times the vanadium content as uranium, though it is not currently being mined.
Other businesses have already popped up in recent years.
Esther Jeffs moved to a farm in the West End a few years ago and now employs dozens of seamstresses in an old school building. They sew a variety of items, from bags catered to pet owners to more than a million COVID masks. She hosted an event in November trying to recruit locals to her company, which she said pays a 10% to 15% commission and lets employees work from home and set their own hours.
Galit Korngold opened a health food store called Wild Gal’s Market after moving to Nucla in 2019 and learning the closest place to buy organic groceries was a two and half hour drive away. She supplies food for a new boutique glamping operation and is sought out by residents whose “doctors have told them that they need to start eating better.”
“We have one guy who comes in and buys out all our green soup,” she said, laughing.
Her husband, a mechanic, works for a recreational equipment rental shop in Naturita.
Korngold loves the sense of community and said young families moving in are “really like-minded.”
But she’s worried the area could gentrify, and thinks her store could contribute to that.
The pandemic also provided a boost to the towns’ budgets. Sales tax revenue went up as online shopping increased and visitors came seeking a respite from the cities. Property values climbed, reflecting the state’s surging housing market.
Sheriff and others involved in the economic development effort have been heartened by a ballot measure passed in November to build a new pre-K-12 school.
Voters agreed to pony up $950,000 in taxes to get $35 million through a state grant. The school board and local organizations provided funding or loans for another $1.5 million. Tri-State was asked to contribute but declined.
As a community center — funerals are sometimes held in the school gym — the new school could be a draw for teachers and kids who like “brand new, shiny buildings,” Wytulka said.
The new building will be located next to the current middle and high school which is about 70 years old, with fixtures so worn that some bathroom sinks barely run water. There aren’t enough electrical outlets for the computer lab. The school has been “dinged” in electrical inspections, Wytulka said.
Boughey, with Tri-State, said they told the community Tri-State could not commit funding to the effort and was “significantly reducing costs, including addressing the costs of stranded coal assets, and reducing wholesale rates to our members.”
One Friday night in November, the school gym was packed with people watching middle school basketball games.
Campbell, the former coal worker whose wife is the granddaughter of Nucla’s mayor, was a referee. One of his cousins was playing. Another was refereeing. His uncle was the coach.
Campbell played catch with his three-year-old son in the parking lot after the game.
Morale had plummeted among workers in both Nucla and Craig when they learned the power plants’ fate, Campbell said.
“I just wasn’t willing to go through it again,” he said.
Campbell said he prides himself on being financially savvy, and wants to give back to the community through being involved in youth sports or serving on local boards.
Otherwise “new people move in and they make the rules,” he said. “The locals have no one but themselves to blame because they don’t step up.”
He thinks the region must find a future in natural resources like timber and oil, and that the national economy has become overly reliant on services.
Roger Carver, who headed the local coal miners’ union when the closure was announced, thinks a small hospital — maybe with a satellite campus — could bring jobs and retirees to the area.
Carver said he’d tried to tell other workers that the mine wouldn’t be around for very long. But many felt protected by the election of President Donald Trump, who repeatedly said he was bringing back “clean, beautiful coal” and putting miners back to work.
When the closure was announced, Carver negotiated for the 20 or so miners to get the reclamation work and then severance packages — a payout based on years of service, a few thousand dollars for health insurance and educational costs for “younger guys,” he said, “who wouldn’t get $60,000 checks.”
“We’re all old families here,” Roger’s wife, Tina Carver, said. “They don’t want to pack up and move. This is their home, their kids (were) raised here, and some of their kids still live here, like ours.”
One of the Carvers’ sons worked for a blasting contractor for the mine. He was one of the first to lose his job. It took him over a year to find another one.
Before going to the mine, Roger Carver worked at a tire shop, in construction and in uranium exploration — work that at one point was so abundant someone could quit a job on a drill rig and find another that night while socializing in town, he said.
Now, he said, there just aren’t as many jobs around, especially in a small area.
He took a doctor’s advice and retired shortly before the mine closed, having lost about 70% of his lung capacity to a combination of coal and uranium dust and silica, he said.
Coal mining a “thing of the past”
Some residents and officials blame the governor and environmental activists for prompting the demise of the Nucla coal plant.
Tri-State closed the Nucla plant as part of an agreement to help reduce air pollution to comply with federal regional haze standards. The aging plant was originally expected to close in 2022.
Naturita Mayor John Riley, 81, said he thought the closure was the “stupidest thing that ever happened” and questioned whether alternate energy sources are robust enough to meet demand.
He didn’t see any industry coming in to replace coal except uranium.
“Coal mining now is a thing of the past I guess,” he said.
The situation sometimes makes him “feel totally defeated.”
“It’s hard to express all the pain that this community suffered from the loss of mining and the mill,” he said.
Many residents died from lung cancer borne from smoking around radon, a gas produced by the decay of uranium, Riley said. A friend and one-time business partner died in recent years. His youngest son, the local fire chief, died suddenly of a heart attack in March.
“There’s so many people that I wish you could have met,” he said. “These people have the pioneering blood in this area more than any place I’ve lived.”
The Carvers have flown to Washington, D.C. to advocate for federal legislation to revitalize coal communities. Roger Carver described it as a “god awful, slow process,” though the couple say the community should embrace change.
“They want things to stay the same,” Tina Carver said. “But you (have) to move forward and make some kind of progress.”