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Laid-off miners scrape by

But mine closures' impact not huge on local economy

HUNTINGTON — Life after the Crandall Canyon Mine catastrophe has been an economic challenge for many families here, and they have welcomed the help of community members and some aid from the government, along with outreach from local financial institutions.

Mitch Horton, 38, worked in local mines for 20 years, including 15 years at Crandall Canyon. The mine closed after the accident, and he now is out of work for the first time in his life.

He had been the primary wage earner for his family, with his wife working part-time and taking care of their five children. Now, he stays at home with the kids, collecting unemployment while his spouse works more hours.

"It's a little spooky," he said. "We got all our bills paid right now. My wife's working full-time now. If it wasn't for her working, we'd be scraping by."

Six miners were trapped in the August collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine, and their bodies were never recovered. Three rescuers died days later trying to reach them. In the wake of the accidents, the mine was closed, along with the nearby Tower Mine.

Horton estimates his family can go a few more weeks before he will be forced to take another job, if the closed mines do not reopen. Until then, he plans on pursuing a commercial driver's license and possibly become a truck driver.

If he stays in mining, he is strongly considering a venue change to a unionized mine, possibly to the Deer Creek Mine in neighboring Carbon County.

"I think as many years as I've been in that nonunion mine, they press you harder and you work harder, and it wears your body out."

Despite the lower pay in union shops, he said, he believes that the better hours, improved working conditions and good benefits would be a fair trade-off.

To help local mining families, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. last week asked banks and credit unions in cities affected by the mine closures to offer support to families in difficult financial straits. Some institutions have set up programs to allow cash-strapped families to defer their mortgage payments for up to six months with no accrued interest.

Other financial institutions are working with families on an individual basis to provide relief with bills and other obligations.

As for local businesses, most have yet to feel a significant economic squeeze due to the closures. But a few that rely on mine operations as their major clients are experiencing a significant drop-off in revenue.

"We've got things sitting on the shelves that we need to move. It's affected us for sure," said Brink Griffin, owner of Chute Supply in Cleveland, located outside of Huntington.

He said sales are down nearly 20 percent since the mines shut down. The Murray Energy Co.-owned mines were his biggest customers, he added. Depending on what happens with the mine, he said, his company may have to court clients in other areas of the state to recoup the lost revenue.

In nearby Price, few families were directly affected by the Crandall Canyon accident or the mine closures, and most of those who were impacted have been able to find other jobs, either in mining or other industries, said Jerry Carlson, owner of Price Mine Service.

Carlson's company contracts miners, in addition to providing a variety of other services, including offering rental accommodations to contracted workers. Because most of the area mines were operating below capacity, he said, the majority of people displaced have been able to find positions with other local mining companies or in other states.

"There was such a shortage of people before all this stuff happened that they filled the gaps, so now all the (open) positions are just about full," he said.

However, Carlson acknowledged that many of the unfilled jobs are lower level, so some workers have had to take pay cuts at least for the time being, and a few are choosing to wait to see if Murray Energy reopens the Tower Mine.