By Joe Toft
September 15, 2022 - Beginning as a surface mining operation in 1973, when Unit 1 of the San Juan Generating Station came online, the San Juan and La Plata mines have been the sole supplier of coal to the San Juan Generating Station for nearly five decades. At its peak, the four units of the San Juan Generating Station produced 1848 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, 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,” says Purvis.
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 is hard to see the mine close,” he says, “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 experienced 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,” says Pile. “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.”