As Utah explodes in growth, coal country is left behind

The decline of coal has hit this region of Utah hard, but locals hope to find a path forward.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) In Price, the wane of the coal industry has led to a shrinking population and economic struggles, but residents hope to find a new path forward.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

[Subscribe to our newsletter here]

The connection to coal runs deep in Carbon County, Utah.

It’s in the name, after all, which was chosen because of the area’s booming mining and rail industries in the 1800s. Even the local radio station is called KOAL. Speaking with people from the area, it’s common to hear that someone comes from a long line of miners.

The industry’s presence is felt everywhere in the area, but so is its absence. The shift away from coal towards natural gas and more renewable energy sources has devastated the area economically since 1980. Several plants have shut down and many mines lay inactive, leading many residents to leave the area.

“It started at the power plant, which lost coal production,” said Mike Dalpiaz, an executive at the United Mine Workers Association and former 16-year mayor of Helper, a town in Carbon County. “The coal mines got hit. The tire stores got hit. People moved out, so the grocery stores got hit. We’re not a big place, so it’s very noticeable.”

While Utah’s urban centers like Salt Lake City and Provo have boomed, adding jobs and population rapidly in recent decades, many rural areas of the state like Carbon County have stagnated, losing residents and jobs. The cause is a shift away from the extraction industry, an aging population and the automation of jobs. The same patterns can be seen in rural areas across the country. Though reinvigorating these areas is an uphill battle, efforts to repurpose these towns and diversify their economies have seen some success.

(Shane Burke | The Salt Lake Tribune) As the state booms, these Utah counties are losing population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to 2020 Census data, seven counties in Utah shrank in the last decade. They are all rural areas, many facing economic woes of different stripes. The most populated of them is Carbon County, where 1 in 20 people have left or passed away in the past decade.

“In a lot of Utah’s smaller, more rural communities, there’s less economic diversity,” said Mallory Bateman, a demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “If you look at the last decade, young people were leaving those places and going to urban centers in Utah.”

The coal mining industry is extremely dangerous work. There is always the risk of an accident – just 14 years ago, six miners were killed by a collapse that trapped them 1,800 feet underground in nearby Emery County. Three more rescue workers were killed attempting to save them. For those who survive, there can be long-term complications, like black lung, a respiratory disease from prolonged inhalation of coal dust. Hard physical labor and economic despair may have contributed to opioid addiction in Carbon County -- it has the highest prescription rate per capita in the state.

Janice Hunt has witnessed coal’s decline. Hunt began her career in her early 20s working underground in a mine. She was 1 of 5 women to every 100 men, as required by union stipulations.

“It was hard work, but when you’re young, it’s a lot easier,” said Hunt.

She worked there for a year and a half until it shuttered in 1982. Upon departure, she was given the opportunity to take college courses to pivot her skills. She studied business, securing a job in the office of another mine, eventually hopping to a third local mine.

That’s where she worked until that mine closed its doors 12 years ago, leading her coworkers to scramble for the disappearing mine jobs like a game of musical chairs. Some landed those jobs, but many had to settle in less lucrative fields or leave the area altogether. Hunt eventually found a position helping with closed captioning for the hard of hearing. She hopes to retire soon.

Still, some positive outlook for Utah’s coal country has emerged, especially in the past year or two. Homes have sold especially quickly in the area in the past year, with prices rising by 10% since last August alone, according to Zillow data.

The rise of telework has helped. Untethered from physical offices, more people can take advantage of the area’s cheaper cost of living and natural amenities. Utah legislators are also working on programs to train people in rural areas for remote opportunities and incentivizing companies to hire them to diversify these economies.

In line with the area’s past, there are also new energy projects in the works. A large solar farm is under construction in Carbon County.

“It hasn’t been taken very well by people who have worked in the mines,” said Hunt, speaking of the project. “They think the mines will last forever, but our whole future is changing when it comes to energy, with electric cars, solar farms, windmills and whatnot. People are looking towards the future, and coal isn’t really in it.”

Helper, the second biggest town in the area, has found success in pivoting its focus completely: to arts and tourism. Multiple galleries, showcased in a monthly “stroll,” have revitalized Helper’s neglected downtown. Its rise provides inspiration to nearby communities.

“We had a door open in the 90s with the artsy thing, and it has flourished,” said Dalpiaz, speaking of his tenure as mayor of the town. “Is it our salvation? Right now, until we find a new one, it probably is.”

And though there’s a net loss of people in these towns, newcomers are forging their own opportunities. Sherry Nehl, who moved from Oregon two years ago with her family, has fulfilled her dream of opening a restaurant, Juniper Pizza Cafe. It’s located in a historic building in downtown Price, the county seat.

“I wanted a place where I could own a restaurant,” Nehl said. “The size is perfect for that. I’m not competing with multi-million dollar restaurant groups, but there’s enough people to support a local business.”

Nehl especially enjoys the area’s history and proximity to natural beauty. She’s had ghost hunters come through her pizzeria, a reminder of her of the town’s Old Western roots. Altogether, she appreciates her community and looks forward to raising her children in Price.

“I think our future is really positive,” said Nehl. “Price feels like the best-kept secret in Utah.”