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Westmoreland lays off 85 at San Juan mine

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of the largest underground coal mines in the world is losing many of the people involved in its operation.

Westmoreland Coal Co. has laid off 85 workers at the San Juan Coal Mine near Farmington, according to Executive Vice President Joe Micheletti. The mine employed more than 400 people as of February.

Micheletti said the layoffs are necessary because the San Juan Generating Station, which uses all the mine’s coal, plans to retire two of its four units as part of a negotiated agreement among plant operator Public Service Company of New Mexico, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navajo Nation, and the state of New Mexico. The agreement was created in response to a dispute over air pollution in the Four Corners area.

Micheletti said the affected employees were both salaried and hourly workers.

“The layoffs are regrettable, but we maintain a strong commitment to the San Juan Mine and the Farmington community,” he said.

Micheletti said affected employees were being provided with career counseling and other resources to ease the transition.

Westmoreland purchased the San Juan Mine from BHP Billiton on Feb. 1 for $127 million. One month later, 11 salaried staff lost their jobs. Micheletti would not comment on whether he expected to see more layoffs in the coming months.

Utility company PNM, co-owner and operator of the San Juan Generating Station, did not comment on the mine layoffs, but did reiterate its promise not to lay off any employees at the station as a result of the unit closures. That pledge was a stipulation in a separate agreement PNM entered with the state of New Mexico to address the economic impacts of the unit closures.

San Juan is one of dozens of mines announcing layoffs in recent weeks amid a dramatic decline of the U.S. coal industry. While coal was the nation’s primary source of electricity generation a decade ago, that reliance has plummeted as power utilities have turned to cheap natural gas as well as renewables like wind and solar. Coal now accounts for only a third of electricity generated, according to the Energy Department, though coal-fired power plants are still one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The business is volatile,” said Micheletti. “We hope for better times.”