Monday, June 25, 2012

Black Thunder Mine

Long before the issue of coal exports raised its head in Washington this past year, I had wanted to spend some time around Gillette checking out the mines and the trains.  Reading John McPhee's account of a coal train in Uncommon Carriers was one impulse, but there were others.  Including my long-time fascination with energy, geology, and railroads.

My first introduction to the Black Thunder Mine was in 1981.  I had been offered a job with Schlumberger and the first thing they did was to fly me up from Denver to Gillette to go out on a logging job - probably the idea was to either whet the appetite of new engineers or to convince them to find another line of work.  I was checked in at the Holidome? and late that night my host engineer called to say a job was ready south of town.  I remember being amazed as we drove past the lights and equipment of Black Thunder sometime after midnight, on our way out to the rig site (which was somewhere farther east).  Something about the dragline at night looked like a scene out of science fiction.  The oil rigs turned out to be pretty cool at night, too.

I suppose a large fraction of the electricity generated in the U.S. is "mined" within a few tens of miles of Gillette.  And then shipped all over the country in conveyor belts that look a lot like long railroad trains with a big loop of track at each end - one at the mine, one at the power plant.  The rail system developed to service the mines in the swath that extends south from Gillette is pretty impressive.

The mines are a very real presence in this area, as are the oil pumps and rigs, the rail yards, and miles of industrial service and supply warehouses.  Personally, I have far more trouble with the commercial strips and the boom-bust character of the towns and the social problems that go with the young, transient population than I do with the coal mines and the oil wells themselves!  Maybe it's what I took away from several years in places like Williston, Dickinson, and Fort Morgan.

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