Closed eastern Utah coal mine to start up again, could bring up to 400 jobs

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Under a new name, Utah’s long-shuttered Trail Mountain coal mine is expected to resume production despite flagging demand for coal among U.S. power generators.

Executives with Wolverine Fuels, Utah’s largest coal producer, told a legislative panel last week that it holds leases on 58 million tons of recoverable coal on a tract near Orangeville it calls Fossil Rock. The coal can be accessed through Trail Mountain’s sealed portals.

“We have plans to breach those seals and begin mining as early as next year,” Vice President of Operations Garrett Atwood told an interim committee.

“It would be a boon to the Utah economy. ... We are talking in the neighborhood of 100 employees,” Atwood added. “These are all high-paying jobs in a rural economy.”

Wolverine plans to convert the mine from a continuous to a long-wall operation, he said, which would employ between 300 and 400.

The prospects of a new mine thrilled leaders in Emery County, which occupies the heart of Utah coal country and takes great pride in its mining heritage.

“It’s going to be a great thing for the county. We’ve been waiting for a long time. We hope that it really happens,” County Commission Chairman Lynn Sitterud said Monday. “Had there been a means of exporting that coal, the mine would probably have opened before now.”

Unlike most of Utah’s coal production, the bulk of the Fossil Rock coal is leased from the state, rather than the federal government. This coal lies under the 8,200-acre Cottonwood tract controlled by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which auctioned the rights to mine it in 2007.

Because of coal’s climate impacts and high cost of controlling its emissions, many U.S. utilities are moving away from the black rock in favor of natural gas, made cheap by the fracking revolution, and renewable sources such as solar and wind.

On Monday, the United Nations convened its Climate Action Summit to outline goals for reducing emissions of greenhouses gases blamed for climate change. If those goals are to be achieved, coal would have to be phased out as a leading energy source.

Yet Asian economies remain hungry for coal, especially coal from Utah, which packs high amounts of energy, but produces less ash and contains smaller amounts of pollution-forming sulfur than most of the world’s coal, Atwood said.

Wolverine changed its name last year and relocated its headquarters from Kentucky to Sandy. While coal companies around the nation are slowing production, closing mines and going bankrupt, Wolverine continues to invest, banking on connecting with Asian markets through West Coast export terminals.

Last year, Wolverine shipped 3 million tons — a third of its total production — to Japan through the San Francisco Bay, according to Atwood.

“There is this notion that coal is dying, [but] we can’t hire enough qualified people right now,” Atwood said. “We have been growing and hiring more people at each of our mines. There is an opportunity to keep growing. We see the export market picking up and continue to be strong. As long as we can maintain access to the ports, we will continue to sell our coal overseas — even though the U.S. market may be declining.”

Emery is one of four Utah coal counties that sought to invest $53 million in an export terminal under development in Oakland, Calif., before the project became mired in controversy after East Bay activists and elected officials got wind of the plans to ship coal.

Many local officials opposed coal being handled in Oakland, which passed an ordinance banning coal. A federal judge has since invalidated that ban.

“If that port would go through, it would enable them to load more coal out for export,” Sitterud said. “But right now the environmentalists are causing so much problems with that Oakland port, I’m not sure whether it will ever come to fruition.”

Known then as Bowie Resource Partners, Wolverine arrived in Utah in 2013, when it bought three of the state’s most productive coal mines, as well as rail load outs and coal-processing plants. It also acquired a company called Fossil Rock Resources, which held several coal leases between the Trail Mountain and Cottonwood mines, from PacifiCorp, the utility that operates the nearby Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants.

Atwood expects Fossil Rock to help supply those plants with high-quality coal that he said holds 11,500 British thermal units per pound and less than 0.6% percent sulfur. The mine is located a few miles up Cottonwood Creek from the road between Orangeville and Joe’s Valley Reservoir in the Wasatch Plateau.

Wolverine holds contracts to supply both those plants. The contract to supply Hunter is up for renewal next year. Meanwhile, the firm’s biggest customer, the Intermountain Power Plant near Delta, will stop burning coal in 2025, when it is scheduled to switch to natural gas.