QUESTA – Mine worker and life-long Questa resident Eric Salazar walked into his home last Monday morning after getting word that he was among 300 workers being sent home with an announcement that Chevron Mining was shuttering its molybdenum mine.
His little grandson asked, “What are you doing home so early?” Salazar explained to the boy what “laid off” means – he no longer has his job of 18 years as a heavy equipment operator at the almost 100-year-old Questa mine.
“You’ll get another one (a job),” the boy told his grandfather. But he still wanted to know, “Will you still buy me toys?”
“I got grandkids that I like to spoil,” Salazar, 42, a third-generation moly mine worker, said on Wednesday.
Salazar and several dozen of his co-workers gathered at the Kit Carson Building north of Questa, and munched on cookies and talked before going through Chevron-organized layoff orientations.
Outside the building were the pick-up trucks the mine employees drive that still require monthly payments and gas, and there are mortgage payments to meet.
Village leaders are hoping that tourism – boosted by the presidential designation of the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, with its spectacular gorge just to the west – and jobs in the federally mandated clean-up and remediation of the mine’s giant mountainside scar will help replace the loss of Questa’s biggest economic driver.
“Everybody’s got families, and buying houses and cars, and they all got bills. So we just got to hustle and get after it,” said Salazar. “And the way times are, the economy is pretty slow out here in the north; there’s very limited jobs out here.”
He predicted some former mine workers may have to move away from Questa, a village of about 1,800, and its environs.
“It’s kind of devastating, you know, to the whole community,” said Max Ortega of Questa, who was a heavy equipment mechanic at the mine on and off for 20 years.
The men interviewed on Wednesday were waiting to go through the orientation sessions to help them transition, they hope, from good-paying mine jobs to other employment.
Salazar, who said he’s looking for other work right away, was philosophical about the latest turn in his work life.
“We figured maybe a layoff, but not a complete shutdown,” he said. “It was a pretty big shocker when they turned around and told us all hourly employees are done as of today.” Union workers got a 60-day notice.
“It’s too bad the ball bounced the way it did,” Salazar added, “but it was a good run. Chevron was good to us.” He mentioned that the company provided workers with boots and clothing that they needed on the job.
Younger workers may be taking the closure hardest.
“I don’t know what else to do,” said Reyes Cisneros, 24, of Taos. He did a “little bit of everything at the mine.”
“It’s just hard to take in,” said Cisneros.
Floyd Rael, 56, of Questa is a licensed electrician contractor who has put in several stints at the mine. Like his co-workers, he will have to adjust to the new reality.
“I find it kind of strange, because you are used to getting up early every morning,” he said. “In my case, I feel I have got other options … I feel a little sorry for other younger people who still have a lot to go as far as maintaining their livelihood around here.”
Gone for good
Since 1919, the mine has produced molybdenum, used as a steel hardening agent in many products. Chevron said the worldwide price of molybdenum had dropped to a level that makes continued mining at the site unprofitable after all the decades of pulling the element out of the Questa site.
The mine, previously operated by other companies, has had a boom-and-bust history of temporary shutdowns in recent decades. But this time, it’s the real deal.
“The Questa mine is permanently shut down,” Chevron Mining public affairs manager Margaret Lejuste said in an email. “We will focus on remediation and reclamation efforts, which we anticipate will take place for at least 20 more years.”
The mine is under federal and state mandates to clean up contamination attributed to the mine.
Questa mayor Mark Gallegos, while just as shocked by the shutdown news as his constituents, has met with officials from Chevron’s Environmental Management Company and hopes local workers can contribute to the long-term reclamation work.
He expects Chevron to continue to help laid off workers.
The prior owner-operators of the mine may not have been the best ones for the long haul, added Gallegos.
“Chevron is a global powerhouse company that knew there was going to be a lot of reclamation work to be done,” the mayor said.
In a statement, Gov. Susana Martinez said she “is disappointed by the shutdown, but has committed the resources of the State of New Mexico to lessen the impact on the Questa community and to help affected workers and their families.”
Chevron will hold at least two job fairs at the Kit Carson hall and maybe more. The fairs are scheduled for Wednesdays on June 25 and July 16 to connect skilled laid-off workers with employers and contractors. The New Mexico Department of Labor is expected to have representatives there.
Getting after it
Ron Manchego of Garcia, Colo., worked at the mine for nine years as a welder. He was one of those who went through the employee assistance sessions that have been taking place since Tuesday.
“I think it’s good,” he said after the session. “It seems like they are going to help us out as much as they can, and try and get us ready to look for a job.”
For the family of Ernie Griego of Questa, who worked at the mine for eight years pouring concrete, the layoffs were a double whammy. His wife, who worked in accounting for Chevron, was also laid off. Griego stood outside the hall on Wednesday going over the finer points of his work contract.
“It says in our contract if we work safely we will get an extra 320 hours (of pay) if we have no incidents,” he said. He said there were no safety issues and he thinks he is due an additional three weeks of pay.
Griego went through a temporary layoff at the mine in 2009. “It’s good to at least see they are trying to help us this time, because last time Chevron made a lot promises to us and we really didn’t see much after the last lay off.”
Eric Salazar had a few questions for Chevron human resources on his retirement package and 401k account. He said the orientation session was helpful on preparing résumés but he doesn’t think he will attend the job fairs. Contractors who will be doing the mine’s reclamation work could provide an opportunity, he said.
Salazar is not going to let any grass grow under his feet. “I’ve got to get after it and chase that dollar,” he said.