Page, Ariz. • For decades, waves of electricity poured from this behemoth of a power plant on the high desert plateau of the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, lighting up hundreds of thousands of homes from Phoenix to Las Vegas as it burned 240 rail cars' worth of coal a day.
But as the day shift ended here at the Navajo Generating Station one evening early this year, all but a half-dozen spaces in the employee parking lot — a stretch of asphalt larger than a football field — were empty.
It was a similar scene at the nearby Kayenta coal mine, which fueled the plant. Dozens of the giant earth-moving machines that for decades ripped apart the hillside sat parked in long rows, motionless. Not a single coal miner was in sight, just a big, black Chihuahuan raven sitting atop a light post.
Saving these two complexes was at the heart of an intense three-year effort by the Trump administration to stabilize the coal industry and make good on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to end “the war on coal.”
“We’re going to put our miners back to work,” Trump promised
soon after taking office.
Despite Trump’s stocking his administration with coal-industry executives and lobbyists, taking big donations from the industry, rolling back environmental regulations and intervening directly in cases like the Arizona power plant and mine, coal’s decline has only accelerated in recent years.
And with the president now in the closing stages of his struggling reelection campaign, his failure to live up to his pledge challenges his claim to be a champion of working people and to restore what he portrayed four years ago as the United States' lost industrial might.
The story of the complex in Arizona
demonstrates the lengths the administration went to in helping a favored industry, the limits of its ability to counter powerful economic forces pushing in the other direction and ultimately Trump’s quiet retreat from his promises.
In the years after Trump’s election, the federal government offered help valued at as much as $1 billion to keep this one power plant and coal mine up and running by embracing an industry plan to relax costly air-quality requirements.
A Republican lawmaker from Arizona sought to force one of the state’s largest utilities to continue to buy power from the plant. Peabody, the world’s largest coal company, offered to discount the price of the coal it was selling the power plant from the Kayenta mine.
None of it proved to be enough. By late last year, both the Kayenta mine and the Navajo Generating Station had gone offline
, a high-profile example of the industry’s broader collapse and the resulting economic and political aftershocks.
Alvin Long, 61, who spent nearly three decades maintaining the earth-moving machines at the Kayenta mine before it closed and remains unemployed, said the past several years have led him to reassess his political allegiance. After backing Republicans since the 1970s and voting for Trump in 2016, he said he was leaving the party.
“We really thought we had a chance to keep it going, when we voted for Trump,” he said. “But I don’t care to listen to him anymore. All of his promises went down the drain.”
To some degree, Trump was defeated by powerful market forces, primarily, low natural gas prices that made coal a less attractive fuel for power plants and the increasing economic viability of renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The pandemic made matters worse, slowing coal sales as energy consumption in the United States dipped.
But an examination of the administration’s efforts to support coal in Arizona and elsewhere, including a review of thousands of pages of emails and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also raises questions about whether the president had any realistic prospect of saving the industry or whether he mostly wanted to be seen as trying.
After all of the efforts the administration made in Trump’s first three years in office, the White House has offered no big new plans this year to keep the industry afloat, casting doubt on how much political capital he is willing to invest to protect coal jobs. The president rarely mentions it on the campaign trail.
Peter Shulman, a historian at Case Western Reserve University and the author of “Coal and Empire,” about the history of the industry, said he suspected that Trump was focused as much on coal as a convenient symbol as he was the fate of the industry.
“Trump’s pledges to coal miners were rhetorical appeals to hardworking, blue-collar Americans like when Nixon put on a hard hat after a meeting with labor union leaders back in 1970,” Shulman said. “But there was no policy Trump could have implemented that would have changed this situation with coal.”
The White House defended Trump’s record, saying he had reversed policies enacted by the Obama administration that were strangling the industry, and other officials said coal now had a better chance of remaining competitive.
“Our actions have given coal a fair chance in the future,” said Mandy Gunasekara, the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief of staff.
Since Trump was inaugurated, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been idled, eliminating 15% of the nation’s coal-generated capacity, enough to power about 30 million homes
That is the fastest decline in coal-fuel capacity in any single presidential term, far greater than the rate during either of President Barack Obama’s terms. An additional 73 power plants have announced their intention to close additional coal-burning units this decade, according to a tally by the Sierra Club.
An estimated 20% of the power generated in the United States this year is expected to come from coal, down from 31% in 2017.
In part because of the coronavirus-induced recession, total coal production is expected to drop this year to 511 million tons
, down from 775 million tons in 2017. That 34% decline is the largest four-year drop in production since at least 1932.
Far from bringing back jobs, the downturn has translated into 5,300 coal mining jobs
, or nearly 10%, being eliminated since Trump took office.
Nationwide, 12,000 jobs were lost at fossil-fuel burning power plants in the United States in the first three years of Trump’s term, despite efforts by many coal-burning utilities, including the owner of the Navajo Generating Station, to find work for employees at other plants.
For people like Marie Justice, the former president of the United Mine Workers of America union local and a Navajo tribe member who worked for Peabody in two mines in northern Arizona for 31 years, the shutdowns were a betrayal.
“We were lied to,” Justice said. “Every time we turned around they kept telling us coal miners they would save our jobs. That is what we heard from Trump. But the mines keep closing.”
Arizona is now an electoral battleground for Trump. But the economic trauma from coal’s rapid collapse extends to Kentucky and other coal-mining states. After the shutdown of coal-fueled power producers like the Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky, the Genesis Mine in Centertown, Kentucky, laid off its 250 workers in late February.
Coal’s accelerating decline has produced one of the Trump era’s most counterintuitive outcomes: Air pollution in the United States related to power production has declined rapidly despite the administration’s aggressive rollback of environmental regulations.
The amount of sulfur dioxide coming from power plants, which can cause health complications including breathing difficulties and heart disease, dropped by nearly 30% nationwide
in the first three years of Trump’s tenure, a faster rate of decline than the first three years of Obama’s presidency. Nitrogen oxide, another hazardous pollutant, also dropped much faster than in Obama’s first three years.
Coal-fired power plants are the largest source in the United States of the carbon emissions that are responsible for climate change. Navajo Generating Station alone emitted 15 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, equal to about 3.7 million cars driven for one year
In northwestern Arizona, the closing of the Navajo Generating Station means less haze clouding views across the Grand Canyon.
(Christie Hemm Klok | The New York Times) The Navajo Generating Station in Page, Ariz., January 2020. The demise of coal-fired power plants in Arizona and Kentucky shows how the president, despite promises to restore jobs, failed to counter the forces decimating the industry.
A dozen coal miners lined up behind Trump one afternoon in March 2017 during his first visit to the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency. He was there for a carefully choreographed event to celebrate a profound shift in federal policy.
The Obama administration had spent eight years rolling out measures intended to curb climate change — regulatory actions that either increased the cost of operating a coal-burning power plant or restricted access to new sources of coal.
Modern mining machines used on the surface mines in the West had already drastically curbed the number of coal jobs. The fracking boom had further reduced employment by driving down the price of natural gas to a point where even newer and more efficient coal-burning power plants could not compete.
Trump had come to the EPA headquarters to promise coal miners that he was going to turn back the clock.
“The miners told me about the attacks on their jobs and their livelihoods,” Trump said, moments before he signed an executive order instructing federal agencies to freeze or reverse many of the Obama-era measures. “They told me about the efforts to shut down their mines, their communities and their very way of life. I made them this promise: We will put our miners back to work.”
Among those in the audience were lobbyists and top executives from some of the country’s largest coal mining companies. Trump and Republicans had reaped millions of dollars in campaign donations from those on hand, including J. Clifford Forrest III, the chief executive of Rosebud Mining in Pennsylvania; Joseph W. Craft III of Alliance Resource Partners of Oklahoma; and Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of Murray Energy, the owner of the Genesis Mine in Kentucky.
Just days earlier, Murray had sent the White House and a number of Cabinet agencies a detailed “action plan” for “getting America’s coal miners back to work.”
The members of the team Trump had assembled to carry out his plan — including Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, and Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary — had been carefully selected.
Pruitt came from Oklahoma, where he had gained a national reputation while attorney general for defending coal and natural gas companies from the Obama-era environmental rules. His actions there included an unsuccessful lawsuit that attacked the same regulation that required the Navajo Generating Station to spend as much as $1 billion on new emissions controls.
Pruitt would also select as his chief of air pollution policy a coal-industry lawyer named William Wehrum, who had spent the past decade as a paid advocate for coal-burning power plant owners. Now he would oversee the dismantling of the coal-industry regulatory system.
Other top advisers on Pruitt’s team included Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist, who would go on to replace Pruitt.
Zinke had repeatedly pressured
the Interior Department while he represented Montana in the House to abandon a plan to increase royalties paid by coal companies for coal extracted from federal and Indian lands. He had also pressed federal officials to sign off on a new ship terminal in Washington state to allow a major expansion of coal exports to power plants in Asia.
“We sit on one-third of our nation’s recoverable coal reserves, which are valued at more than $1.5 trillion on the global marketplace,” Zinke wrote in a May 2015 letter to Obama’s interior secretary
at the time, Sally Jewell, referring to coal reserves in Montana.
The tables had now turned. Jewell was out. And Zinke was in charge.
(Christie Hemm Klok | The New York Times) Alex Osif, who was a safety officer at the Kayenta coal mine, which powered the Navajo Generating Station before it shut down, in Kayenta, Ariz., January 2020.
At its peak in 1988, coal generated 57% of all of the electricity in the United States, while only 9% came from renewables, like solar, hydroelectric and wind.
In Arizona, coal can be credited in large part for the rise of Phoenix, now the fifth largest city in the United States. The Navajo Generating Station opened in 1974 to create the huge amount of power needed to move 1.5 million acre-feet worth of water annually from the Colorado River down along 336 miles of canals into the once-desertlike reaches of central and southern Arizona, where golf courses and grass-filled yards and parks have since bloomed.
The station, built 15 miles from where the Colorado River enters Grand Canyon National Park, dominates the community of Page. The plant’s 775-foot-tall caramel smokestacks, which are among the largest structures in Arizona, tower above everything else, including the region’s famed sandstone formations.
The mines and the power plant became the workplaces of choice for generations of local families, helping build a middle class in an otherwise poor region.
Ernest J. Whitehorse, 57, started working at the plant as a welder when he was 18. His brother Earl also worked there, as did his son Jerome who took a job in the control room. Attending a high school basketball game early this year, where one of his grandsons was on the court, Whitehorse looked out at the bleachers and counted up the many faces he knew from the plant.
When the mine and power plant closed, tens of millions of dollars' worth of paychecks, local government tax revenues and retail sales disappeared. The plant and mine directly employed about 850 Native Americans from the area’s Navajo and Hopi tribes, paying $100 million a year in wages and benefits. Wages at the mine averaged $117,000 per employee in a community where nearly 40% of the population lives in poverty.
The plant and mine also made payments worth about $50 million a year to the tribes for coal royalties and other benefits, including college scholarships.
In 1920, a typical miner in the United States extracted an average of 4 tons of bituminous coal per day. Today in the western United States, which has the largest surface mines in the nation, that figure is about 140 tons a day.
This surge in productivity meant huge declines in jobs even when coal was the dominant source of fuel for power plants, dropping from 862,000 miners in the 1920s to 135,000 by 1990, before leveling off around 50,000 nationwide during the Obama administration.
That number dropped to 42,000 in April, as coronavirus shutdowns spread nationwide, federal data shows. The industry has started to rehire some of those workers, but employment is not expected to reach 2019 levels again, with long-term consequences for local economies built around mining and coal-burning power plants.
“What do we do now?” Whitehorse said, as he looked out at the crowd during the Page Sand Devils basketball game. “What is next? I don’t know the answer for this town.”
(Christie Hemm Klok | The New York Times) Ernest J. Whitehorse, right, attends a basketball game at Page High School in Page, Ariz., January 2020. “What is next?” asked Whitehorse, who started working at the town's plant when he was 18. “I don’t know the answer for this town."
When the levers of power flipped in Washington on the day Trump was sworn in, there was an immediate sprint among the Cabinet agencies to prove who could move the fastest to help the coal industry.
The Interior Department moved first, lifting a moratorium
on new coal leases on federal lands that was imposed under Mr. Obama. Mr. Zinke, the department’s chief, also repealed
a plan to increase the royalties paid for coal extracted from federal lands. And with the help of Congress, the agency nullified a rule restricting coal companies from dumping waste from coal extraction into area streams.
At the EPA, work began to reverse the Obama administration’s highest profile climate-change effort, called the Clean Power Plan, which was projected to cut carbon emissions from power plants by a third. Pruitt, the EPA administrator, then moved to further cut costs at coal-burning power plants by delaying deadlines for a rule
that required them to stop the discharge of toxic metals into rivers.
Inside both agencies, another effort got underway with a more targeted goal: saving Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta mine.
The Interior Department’s 24% stake in the power plant was under the control of a federal agency called the Bureau of Reclamation, which had helped settle the West by delivering a steady supply of water.
The bureau was told by Zinke to work with the power plant, as well as with Peabody, the owner of the mine, and leaders of the Navajo and Hopi tribes to find a way to save Navajo Generating Station, known as NGS.
“One of interior’s top priorities has been to roll up our sleeves with diverse stakeholders in search of an economic path forward to extend NGS and Kayenta mine operations after 2019,” Zinke said in a statement in 2017.
Ray Shepherd, a former House aide who had gone on to work as a lobbyist for Peabody, repeatedly intervened with officials to develop a rescue package that would include the repeal of the costly air-quality requirements.
Shepherd worked most closely with Scott Cameron, a top political appointee who then supervised the Bureau of Reclamation.
“Is Peabody eligible to take this tax credit at NGS?” Cameron wrote in an email, suggesting a tax break that the company could take on its sales to the power plant.
Yes, Shepherd responded, assuming Congress extended the tax break.
Shortly after Trump signed an executive order calling for agencies to curb regulatory costs on energy companies, Shepherd wrote again to Cameron.
“Given the President’s recent EO,” Shepherd wrote, “I wonder whether we couldn’t fashion some regulatory relief for NGS.”
Shepherd soon offered a more detailed plan. In an effort in 2014 to reduce haze that plagues the Grand Canyon, the EPA adopted a rule that most likely would have required the Navajo plant to spend as much as $1 billion to install devices that curb the release of nitrogen on two of its three coal-burning units, and to shut down the third.
Eliminating that upgrade, which had been projected to avoid nearly 800 asthma attacks each year in Arizona among other more serious ailments, would make it much easier to find a new buyer who could keep the plant and coal mine in business.
“This requirement is a significant obstacle for new ownership,” Shepherd wrote.
Shepherd also pushed a top EPA official, Gunasekara, the agency’s chief of staff.
“Happy to discuss further, but the key is $1 billion in value from regulatory relief,” he wrote in a May 2017 email, forwarding her a slide presentation that detailed a rescue plan.
Agency records show at least two dozen meetings or conference calls to discuss the Arizona plant, including trips to Arizona by EPA, Energy Department and Interior Department officials to meet with plant executives and local leaders.
Cameron made clear that he was willing to push other federal agencies to help, asking Shepherd for his “wish list” of regulatory rollbacks.
“I’ll then explore options on those items with other agencies,” he wrote to Shepherd.
In response, Cameron received a 12-item agenda titled, “Peabody/Lazard’s NGS Asks,” which he passed on to his boss, James Cason, a deputy Interior Department secretary.
“Attached are what Lazard and Peabody have asked us to do, based on two very long phone calls this week,” Cameron wrote. “I think these are reasonable requests that don’t put us at risk.”
The administration then moved to grant Peabody what it wanted. Pruitt wrote a letter to Peabody’s financial adviser confirming a tactic the plant could use to avoid the $1 billion project to install new emissions controls. He called the shift “compliance flexibilities.”
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., also floated a plan that would have waived additional Clean Air Act requirements and exempted the plant and mine from federal environmental reviews if a new owner took over.
(Christie Hemm Klok | The New York Times) A solar plant in Kayenta, Ariz., January 2020. The demise of coal-fired power plants in Arizona and Kentucky shows how the president, despite promises to restore jobs, failed to counter the forces decimating the industry.
In Arizona, a campaign to save the Navajo Generating Station was funded by Peabody and other mining industry players, who formed an alliance with the Navajo tribe and the United Mine Workers union to create a movement they called “Yes to NGS.”
The plan was to put pressure on the Central Arizona Project — the agency that runs the canal system providing water to the region — to continue to buy power from the plant. The group would also push officials in Washington to follow through with the cost-cutting regulatory rollbacks.
But the Central Arizona Project board refused to back down, after concluding that its customers would save $14 million in 2020 alone by stopping all power purchases from the plant.
Justice, then the union president, and other miners went to Washington — with the cost covered by the coal industry, she said — seeking help from Congress.
“If these operations shut down a quarter-century before Congress intended, the impact will be devastating,” she said at a House hearing in April 2018. “For Navajo, this represents our children, our grandchildren, grandparents, aunts and uncles.”
But Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo tribe member and the leader of a local environmental group promoting a shift to solar and wind energy, was there, too, with a very different message. The coal miners and the administration were trying to hold on to a “fairy tale,” she told lawmakers.
“There is nothing that will halt the decline in coal,” she told the House committee.
Justice began to wonder if the whole pro-coal effort was a charade.
Little actual progress had been made, she said, to line up customers who wanted to buy the electricity the plant produced. “We were getting a lot of lip service, but not enough action,” she said.
She was hardly the only one doubting that the government would deliver on Trump’s promise.
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club had been pressuring officials in California and Nevada to stop buying coal-powered electricity from the Navajo station and even consider selling off stakes they owned in the plant, which Los Angeles did.
George W. Bilicic, the vice chairman of investment banking with Lazard, the firm hired by Peabody to find a buyer for the plant, also grew worried.
“There needs to be a discipline and sense of urgency applied to the process around the various sides of the octagon-shaped table,” Bilicic wrote in one email to officials at the Interior Department. “We are having lots of discussions but limited concrete progress.”
The message was becoming clear, Bilicic warned: “There are clearly, in our mind, some folks who would be quite pleased to see the plant shut down.”
But Peabody kept pushing ahead, at least until a surprising turn: The Navajo tribe, an ally until that point, switched sides. Tribal leaders decided to embrace a new clean-energy future, in effect ending the effort to save the plant.
“Our people, our sovereignty and our right to self-determination predate the first coal seam found on Navajo, and we will endure and thrive together,” Seth Damon said in announcing the decision last year, shortly after he was elected as a new leader of the tribe.
(Christie Hemm Klok | The New York Times) Homes not far from the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Ariz., January 2020. The mines and the power plant became the workplaces of choice for generations of families in Arizona after opening in 1974.
What happened to paradise?
A different fight was playing out in Kentucky over the Paradise Fossil Plant, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally chartered company created during the Great Depression to help bring jobs and electricity to much of the rural South.
By the 1960s, the TVA had become the biggest consumer of coal in the United States, eventually operating 12 coal-burning plants, including Paradise, which had the largest coal-burning units in the world when it opened in 1963.
Trump sought to buttress the TVA’s commitment to coal, filling four vacancies on its board with his own appointees, including Kenneth Allen of Kentucky, a former executive at Armstrong Coal, whose customers included the Paradise plant.
By the summer of 2018, the president was talking as if he had successfully completed his work in reviving the industry.
“We are back. The coal industry is back,” Trump declared to a crowd in Charleston, West Virginia, including miners in their hard-hats holding signs that said “Trump Digs Coal” and “Promises Made. Promises Kept.”
But that was hardly evident in the postage-stamp-size town of Paradise, Kentucky, made famous by a 1971 song by folk singer John Prine, whose family was from the area. The town of Paradise no longer really exists, except for a small cemetery that overlooks the power plant’s three giant cooling towers,
“The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel,” Prine sang about the town, adding, “Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
Despite Trump’s reassuring words about the industry, Bill Johnson, then the TVA president, was having second thoughts about continuing to burn coal there. Paradise was built to provide so-called base load power, meaning once its coal-burning units were running, they rarely shut off. But modern power needs are increasingly cyclical, rising at one point, then dropping at others.
“To get these plants to run on Thursday, you have to start them on Tuesday,” Johnson explained to his board last year.
Natural gas prices had also fallen so low that the authority could get power cheaper from gas plants. Maintenance issues at Paradise were also causing increasingly frequent “forced outages.”
A TVA staff report had concluded that if the agency closed Paradise and a second coal-burning plant it owns, its ratepayers would save $320 million by turning to cheaper, gas-fueled plants and other alternative sources, including solar power.
Murray Energy, which operated three Kentucky coal mines that delivered more than 1 million tons of coal to the Paradise plant in 2018, joined with plant workers, business owners and even teachers to protest the plan
One plant employee called Johnson an “anti-coal Obama appointee.” A second said he was in “disbelief when I look at the massive number and cost of upgrades that have been done to this plant in the last couple of years, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and TVA wants to shut us down.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, along with Kentucky’s governor at the time, Matt Bevin, and other top elected officials, joined the campaign.
“It is wonderful to imagine on a sunny day that the sun is going to power our electricity and the wind is going to blow,” Bevin said early last year during a Kentucky rally organized by the coal industry to save the plant. “But it is not real.”
For weeks, there was silence from the White House, until Trump weighed in on Twitter just after that rally.
“Coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix and @TVAnews should give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!” Trump tweeted.
But just three days after Trump’s tweet, the TVA board, including three of Trump’s four appointees, voted to shut the plant down. The TVA as recently as 2007 drew 58% of its power from coal. As of 2020, it would be 15%.
“It is not about coal,” Johnson said. “It’s about keeping rates as low as feasible.”
“Alpha Silo Ratchet Gate Closed,” came the call on the radio from the coal unit controller at the Navajo Generating Station back in northwestern Arizona. The controller’s job was to make sure the plant had a steady supply of coal.
But this was not a normal day, according to interviews with many of those who were present and a later visit to the site. For weeks, employees had been watching as the mountainous pile of coal they keep at the site — delivered by rail cars from the Kayenta mine 78 miles away — was slowly shrinking, leaving a black-stained, muddy field. By last November, they were ready for the closing act.
“Bravo Silo Ratchet Gate Closed,” the call came back.
The act of turning coal into power is cacophonous, with high-pitched steam releases from the boiler after it heats the water to 1,001 degrees and 3,500 pounds of pressure, the deafening roar of the steam-driven turbine, and the piercing hum of the generator, a bus-size rotating electromagnet surrounded by a large coil of wires that produces the electricity.
But it all starts in the so-called firebox, where pulverized coal is blown into the boiler and ignited in a fireball more than 25 feet tall.
The firebox has seven separate levels of coal dust that can be ignited at once. So turning off the plant means carefully shutting down seven levels of fire. That is what the coal-unit controller was announcing on the radio, as he closed off the gates, starving the boiler of fuel.
In the control room was Fred Larson, who started working part time at the Navajo Generating Station when he was 22. He was now 64 and standing along with a dozen other workers as the alarms started to go crazy, warning that the plant was running out of coal.
Bells were ringing. Lights were flashing. Warnings were popping up on the computer screens, as the machinery there all but begged for more coal. Gauges measuring throttle pressure, boiler temperature, feed pump suction pressure and water flow all began to slope down.
Larson had perhaps the most important job still to do. He watched as the power output slowly dropped, as the seven levels of fires burned out one at a time, as the Navajo Generating Station drifted toward its death.
The plant was built to produce as much as 2,250 megawatts of power. It was now producing 20. Then 15. Then 10. Larson’s boss walked over and made sure he was ready.
“This is the moment you have been waiting for,” he said, which Larson thought to himself was the entirely wrong thing to say.
The power output dropped to just 5 megawatts and Larson reached out to put his hands on the pistol grip-shaped handle of the two main breakers that connect the power plant to the grid. At once, he flipped them both open. The plant was now offline. In fact, to keep the lights on at the plant, as well as the flashing strobes atop the exhaust stacks, the power plant started to pull electricity from the grid.
An eerie silence took over as the crew members on this last shift gathered their personal items and prepared to walk out.
On a visit early this year, the lights were still on in the plant, and the equipment was still in place, including operating manuals in the control room and the clipboard recording the final load of power.
In the room where the workers had gathered at the beginning of their daily shifts, hard hats rested atop open lockers, and leftover lunch supplies, like a jar of kosher dill pickles and a can of cannellini beans, sat inside, waiting for crews that will never return.
Three months later, in western Kentucky, Paul Stalker headed into work at the Genesis Mine on a Thursday night. Once there, he took the 45-minute shuttle ride through a tunnel for about 5 miles until it reached the well-lit spot, about a quarter-mile below ground.
Crews there used a machine to rip coal from the face of mine, before it was carried to a feeder that cut it up and then to the surface on a conveyor belt. It was a normal shift for Stalker, he later recounted, until the day shift supervisor showed up.
“I just heard from the surface,” said the supervisor, according to Stalker. “They said, ‘Square the unit up.’”
Stalker knew what this meant.
A notice had been sent out on the day after Christmas to all of the Genesis mine workers informing them that “there will be a mass layoff and subsequent plant closing.” It added that “this layoff will be permanent.”
Genesis had long been one of the mines that helped fuel the Paradise plant, which had shut down in early February. Having lost a major customer, a wave of coal mines were closing in Kentucky.
Squaring the unit up meant making sure there was a clean, straight line on the underground wall of coal they had just cut. The foreman wanted this last cut to be neat.
“I guess this is it then, ain’t it,” Stalker told his boss.
The night shift of about 30 men assembled in the locker room and were told to wait for a boss to come in.
“'You guys know this has been coming,'” Stalker recalled the Murray Energy executive telling them. “'You are the best group of men I have ever worked with. You never slowed down. But we are going to stop producing coal here. And unfortunately some of you guys are going to get laid off. It has been good working with you. You have all done a good job.'”
There was not much show of emotion, according to several of the miners there that day.
But in the employee parking lot, Stalker, 45, ran into a fellow miner, who was much newer in his career — still in his 20s. He had some advice for him.
“Man, get out of this industry,” Stalker said. “Don’t be like me, 45 years old and looking for a new industry to start out in.”
“Yeah, my dad has been telling me the same thing,” his colleague responded.
In 2017 and 2018, the Trump administration had granted Murray Energy several of the changes it had sought in the “action plan” submitted by Robert Murray, the company’s chief executive, but the power plants and mines still closed.
Murray Energy itself filed for bankruptcy, and its assets were sold last month to a new, smaller company.
Bruce Summers, 45, who has been on unemployment since the Genesis Mine closed, said he was fed up and unsure who to vote for this year.
“I did not believe in the beginning. Honestly I really didn’t,” he said. “You really can’t change what was already in motion.”
On a hillside a few minutes from Peabody’s now-closed Kayenta coal mine, two new solar complexes have recently been constructed by the Navajo tribe.
They are tiny for now, generating only about 2.5% of the power that the Navajo plant was capable of producing. Only two people work at the Navajo solar complex, compared with the roughly 850 who worked at the power plant and coal mine.
Whitehorse, the former plant worker, said the community, and the Navajo tribe at large, would be hurt given Trump’s failure to honor his promise.
“As a community, we will suffer,” he said. “But we will get through it. We will persevere, survive, like our forefathers did.”