Wyoming's already embattled coal industry took another hit this week, when nearly 600 workers were abruptly sent home from Blackjewel LLC's Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines near Gillette on Monday.

Workers at an emergency meeting attended by Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon Tuesday reported having some of their belongings locked up in the closed mines.

City of Gillette Communications Manager Geno Palazzari called the news shocking in a K2 Radio News phone interview Tuesday morning.

And it could get worse with hundreds of more workers relying indirectly on the coal industry for their income.

University of Wyoming Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy Director Rob Godby said one in three households in Campbell County relies either directly or indirectly on the coal industry for income. That could include a household member who works in the coal mine or support services.

But even more people work in jobs that are "induced" by the coal industry, meaning employees might not know their jobs depend on incomes created from coal mining. It could be people who work at Walmart, restaurants or in medical services.

"Those ripple effects are going to extend through the community," Godby said. "Six-hundred people will just be the start.

"It could be much larger than that. It could be 1,200 to 1,500 jobs that are affected by an event like this."

Godby said coal production in Wyoming has dropped by one-third in the past five years.

Wyoming coal is used mainly to produce electricity and the days of coal-fired electricity being the backbone of American energy are gone, Godby said. More electrical companies are generating power with natural gas. The advent of fracking spurred cheaper natural gas.

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney issued a statement blaming the Obama Administration for the decline of coal.

"[A] number of factors, including the far-reaching impact of regulations that unfairly penalize this industry, are still causing pain in Wyoming," Cheney said.

But Godby said that it's simply much cheaper to produce electricity with natural gas or renewables.

"The real decline in coal is due has been due primarily to companies switching to using natural gas," Godby said. "The real war on coal was declared when people perfected fracking techniques that brought so much natural gas out of the ground."

Eventually, new uses outside of energy may be found for coal, but that's not anywhere on the horizon, Godby said.

It's not yet clear if Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte will reopen. A federal bankruptcy judge on Wednesday denied an attempt by Blackjewel to refinance.

Blackjewel in a court filing Tuesday said if their effort at refinancing was denied, they would have to liquidate the company and abandon operations, including the two mines in Campbell County.

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