Lila Canyon mine will lay off 150 workers in January, and Utah’s 2023 coal production will be the lowest since 1976.
The mine stopped producing in September 2022 after a coal pillar spontaneously combusted on Sept. 20, 2022, and started a stubborn fire. The mine never reopened and is now “idled indefinitely.”
The mine — located in the Book Cliffs near East Carbon City — has not produced any coal since September of last year when a fire broke out in the mine. The company had been fighting the fire and was working toward reopening, but the mine is now “idled indefinitely,” said Michael Vanden Berg, program manager and senior scientist for the Utah Geological Survey.
Emery County Coal Resources, which owns and operates the mine, has filed a notice with the Utah Department of Workforce Services that it intends to lay off 150 workers on Jan. 19. Data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows the mine employed 152 people in the third quarter of 2023, indicating the mine intends to lay off virtually its entire workforce next month. Emery County Coal Resources is part of Ohio-based American Consolidated Natural Resource Inc. Jesse Candelaria, the mine’s “designated resident,” referred press inquiries to the national company. A Tribune email to ACNR did not receive a response.
“Unfortunately, unless someone else purchases it, it’s probably going to be sealed,” said Lynn Sitterud, chairman of the Emery County Commission.
There are now only three operating coal mines in Utah, and two others that are idled but could be restarted, Vanden Berg said. And a new mine, called Fossil Rock, could open soon in Emery County. Most are underground operations in the middle part of the state, but there is one surface coal mine in southern Utah. At one point, Utah had more than 20 operating coal mines.
Wolverine Fuels’ SUFCO mine in Sevier County was Utah’s top producing coal mine in 2022 with 3.9 million tons, and Wolverine’s Skyline #3 mine, which crosses Emery and Sanpete counties, was second with 2.5 million tons.
“Skyline has also recently been idled, but I suspect it will come back online at some point soon,” said Vanden Berg.
Sitterud said a “perfect storm” of issues have hit the area’s coal mines, including Lila Canyon and Skyline and to a lesser extent at SUFCO, and that has reduced stockpiles at the two big Rocky Mountain Power plants in the county.
The other Utah coal mines are Bronco Utah Operation’s Emery Deep mine in Emery County, which produced 1.1 million tons in 2022; Gentry Mountain Mining’s Gentry #3 mine in Emery County, which produced 600,151 million tons in 2022, and Alton Coal Development’s surface mine in Kane County, which produced 354,264 tons in 2022. The Alton mine has also been idled but could return to operations in 2024, Vanden Berg said.
Wolverine is also preparing to open the Fossil Rock mine near Orangeville in Emery County. That mine will be on state trust lands, and it is tapping 58 million tons of coal reserves. Company officials told legislators last year that it would employ 100 people, and that could grow to 300 or 400.
“I certainly hope it does open because our power plants need the coal,” Sitterud said, adding that the company hasn’t fully committed to the further investment needed to opening it.
Rocky Mountain Power declined to comment on Lila Canyon, but spokesman Jonathan Whitesides said, “Rocky Mountain Power’s Hunter and Huntington plants do have sufficient coal supplies and fuel sources for generation to provide reliable service to customers.” Sitterud was confident that the miners laid off from Lila Canyon work can find work in the county. “Every coal mine in the basin is looking for experienced miners. Those guys will have no problem finding a job.”
According to a 2020 report from the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Lila Canyon’s owner at the time, Utahamerican Energy, was Emery County’s second largest employer in the mining sector. DWS data shows there were 393 mining jobs in Emery County in the fiscal year ended June 2023. That is an increase of 62 jobs over the previous year, but it still far below the 1,309 coal mining jobs the county had in 2007, according to a 2010 report from the University of Utah.
Utah’s long decline in coal production has accelerated in recent years, largely because it is the most climate-damaging fossil fuel and U.S. electrical utilities are phasing it out. In its 20-year plan proposed earlier this year, Rocky Mountain said it will close Hunter and Huntington by 2032 and replace them with smaller nuclear power plants, although nuclear plants have been difficult to fund and build. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems recently gave up its plans to build a nuclear plant in Idaho after the cost more than doubled.
Coal demand in Asia remains strong, and Utah coal producers and politicians have sought to export more of it despite its effects on climate. That has faced resistance from West Coast states that don’t want the coal crossing through. And even Asian countries are expected to hit peak coal usage in the next few years as cleaner sources come online. In its most recent World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency expects coal demand in China to peak in 2025.
Between 2000 and 2010, the state regularly produced more than 20 million tons annually. But the last decade has seen a steady drop. The 7.8 million tons this year is 54.5% of what was produced only four years ago (14.3 million tons in 2019), and it will be the lowest Utah coal production since 1976.
The decision to idle the mine comes after an arduous effort to extinguish the fire that involved drilling up to 35 new bore holes and injecting foam into them before flooding it with water. No one was killed or injured in the fire. Because coal can contain its own oxygen, simply sealing the entries doesn’t necessarily extinguish it. Underground coal mine fires can burn for years.
“As far as I know, it is no longer combusting,” said Vanden Berg.