Westmoreland San Juan Mining LLC announced on September 13 that its underground crews mined the last ton of coal destined for the San Juan Generating Station (SJCS) located in San Juan County, New Mexico. Beginning as a surface mining operation in 1973 when Unit 1 came online, the San Juan and La Plata mines have been the sole supplier of coal to SJGS for nearly five decades. At its peak, the four units at the power plant generated 1,848 MW of electricity for millions of households and countless businesses across New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Utah.

Eventually transitioning to an underground operation with a longwall mining system, the San Juan mine has been “home” to thousands of employees over the years and has played a transformational role in the prosperity and commercial development of the surrounding communities. According to Martin Purvis, Westmoreland’s CEO, the discussion is no longer about policy debates surrounding the generating station and mine, but about finally saying thank you.

“Ignoring all the rights, wrongs, and arguments about the premature closure of this amazing facility, we as a company want to make sure that we say thank you to the men, women and communities that have worked together so effectively over the years to make this mine and generating station a bedrock of power supply in the Southwestern United States,” Purvis said.

Steve Pierro, the mine’s General Manager is one of those people. Pierro, who is retiring after 40-plus years in mining to spend more time with his wife, eight children, and 33 grandchildren, agrees and reflects fondly back on the mine’s performance as well as his time there. “It’s hard to see the mine close,” he said, “but as I look back on all we accomplished and all the incredible people I’ve had a chance to work with, I can’t help but be extremely proud of our outstanding track record at this operation. We have put a lot of people from all walks of life to work. We have injected millions of dollars back into the local economy — as well as millions of
dollars to local and national charities.

We have provided countless educational and training opportunities to our workers so they could improve their lives and those of their families. And, to top it all off, we have had one of the top safety and compliance records in North America. That’s really something to be proud of.”

But as Pierro points out, none of that would have ever been possible without one key element — that is, people. “I think it’s important to remember that we are a very diverse community of people who came here and made this mine and power plant work . . . from young people coming to us from the Navajo Nation who were just starting out, to experience longwall operators, to foreman and supervisors, to engineers and environmental technicians, to the hundreds of vendors and suppliers from this community and across the globe. We need to remember that all of them have had an important role in powering the economic development of the Western United States over the past 50 years.”

James Pile, an engineer who came to San Juan from the United Kingdom, agrees with Pierro’s sentiment but has a slightly different focus – his own quality of life and that of his family. “I can’t tell you enough how truly grateful I am to this mine,” Pile said. “In the 24 years I have been here, it has given me and my family financial and educational opportunities, as well as a standard of living well above the one we could have expected, had we stayed in the UK.”

Emma Curley has been with the mine for 29 years. Emma started out as a novice long-haul truck driver for the company. Today, the mother of one who grew up on the Navajo reservation is an experienced mining supervisor. I’m very proud of my career and position here at San Juan. But, you know, I am also a member of the Fire and Rescue Team. I have an EMT certification. I can take that with me almost anywhere and find a job . . . but, more importantly, it enables me to serve my community. That really means a lot to me,” Curley said. Asked if she will miss her work and her colleagues, Curley replies, “Nowhere else would I have had access to the advanced opportunities, growth, and financial stability to take care of my family. So, yes, it’s hard to move on. But I’m very thankful for the San Juan mine and all my coworkers here. They’ve given me far more than I could’ve ever hoped for.”

Jeffrey Kukura, who served as San Juan’s General Manager before becoming Senior Vice President for Technical Services for the company in its Denver office, agrees with Pile, Curley, and Pierro. But he takes it a step further. “They’re heroes, without any doubt in my mind at all,” he exclaims with pride. “It’s really true, this mine and our miners really have been the heroes of this community and our nation,” he says. “The quality of life we enjoy today would not and could not have been possible without them and a lot of people like them.”