Ray Burger sits in a college classroom with his wire frame glasses resting upside down on the table in front of him. His deskmate, Eliza Shippy, 40 years his junior, sits beside him as a guest lecturer boots up a presentation on dementia.
In the sea of laptop screens raised in front of his Gillette College nursing school peers, Burger sits beside a pen and paper. Usually known for the colorful shirts that his wife, Dawn, makes for him, he’s instead wearing a light blue nursing school polo with a face mask almost the same color.
The lecture begins and eventually brain plasticity, or the ability for the brain to continuously rewire itself, comes up. The speaker tells how learning and stimulating the mind with new information and skills throughout the aging process is important for brain health.
For a man approaching traditional retirement age yet trying to squeeze a new profession into the twilight years of his career, the subject matter is particularly resonant.
Burger, 59, and Shippy, 19, have sat beside each other in many of the classes they’ve shared since they started at Gillette College in the fall of 2019. She enrolled as a natural progression after high school and he after 37 years mining Powder River Basin coal.
Several times throughout the class, Burger raises his hand above his head of gray hair to ask a question or offer an answer.
As the oldest member of a nursing school cohort of Generation Z classmates, age and aging are concepts Burger thinks about often, which may even help when he becomes a nurse, relating to and reflecting the experiences of those he is studying to care for.
“I can empathize with the way that these older people feel because I am one,” he said. “The challenges of growing older are things that are front and center right in front of me every day of my life.”
Burger will be 61 when he graduates from Gillette College as a registered nurse in May 2022. It’s a career change that came unexpectedly, but that he’s embraced as a continuation of the education he gave up when he entered the coal industry in the 1980s.
For decades, Burger made the drive west from his home in Moorcroft to work at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Campbell County.
Now he makes a similar commute. Driving along Interstate 90 on his way to school, he moves parallel to the same tracks that carry trains to and from PRB mines like the ones he used to fill.
It’s been almost two years since he lost his job with the coal company he gave nearly 40 years to. Watching the coal cars pulled along the rails, he sees the life he used to have.
“For a while, I felt like the loaded coal trains were mocking me,” he said. “That hurt. Not anymore, but it did for a while.”
37 years to a halt
It was a slow morning at the Belle Ayr mine on July 1, 2019. Burger was working overtime and waiting on a coal train to arrive. Many of the mine employees knew the company was in the bankruptcy process, but had been told not to worry about their jobs.
They found out that day, that their parent company, Blackjewel LLC, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in the morning. Nearly 600 workers at the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines were told it would be business as usual and they’d continue mining through the reorganization process.
That held true for about six hours.
The mine supervisor called everyone into the pre-shift meeting room late that afternoon. He told them the mine was shutting down, effective immediately. Burger said the manager had tears in his eyes making the announcement, concern for the livelihoods that depended on the mine, and probably his own.
“As I drove home, that 40-minute drive from Belle Ayr mine to my home in Moorcroft, my mind was racing,” Burger said. “What am I going to do? How am I going to provide for my family?”
Amid a messy bankruptcy, Blackjewel furloughed without warning its entire 1,700-member workforce in Wyoming, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. Burger was one of about 580 Campbell County workers unilaterally laid off with no notice and little certainty of when, or if, they would get their jobs back.
“It was almost like a lifetime ago,” he said on reflection. “I know it wasn’t that long ago, but sometimes it feels like it.”
As one of hundreds of workers who flooded the job market at the same time, openings were sparse. His wife found an ad for a night janitor at the elementary school their kids had attended years before. It was minutes away from their house in Moorcroft. He got the job, and weeks after the layoff began mopping floors and wiping down whiteboards for about a quarter of his previous wage.
In the decades since he first left Ricks College, now known as Brigham Young University-Idaho, to work in the mines, the idea of going back to earn a degree never left his mind.
So at 59, with not a lot of time left in his working life — but still enough — Burger decided to continue that pursuit.
The fossil fuel industry is not what it used to be. Although still a dominant form of energy production, the writing is on the wall for its future. For years, it provided a good life for Burger, his wife and eight children, but cleaner energy solutions along with national and international interest in addressing climate change has accelerated the inevitable.
Nursing is an ancient and noble profession, and one in particular demand in Campbell County. It’s almost “recession proof,” Burger said, unlike his previous industry.
“Seeing the current political circumstance, and having started this process a year-and-a-half ago, I think I may have a leg up for when things really start to get bad,” Burger said. “And I think they’re gonna. This coal market has seen its best day and it’s not been recent.”
But at times he still has doubts. When that happens, he reflects back to his first week at Gillette College in August 2019.
When he enrolled, Burger said he didn’t know that in just a couple of months, the mine would come calling. That October, midway through his first semester of college and then fully invested in his life as a student by day and janitor at night, the mines reopened and Burger was offered his old mining job back.
Problem solved, right?
Not for Burger, who said the idea of giving up on nursing just didn’t sit right with him. Nearing retirement age, returning to the mine would immediately improve his financial standing, but at the cost of his last chance at earning a college degree.
After giving nearly four decades of his life to an industry that had already left him high and dry once, he questioned what would stop that from happening again?
His wife reminded him of the epiphany he had his first week of class.
Burger is a man of faith who spent nearly all of his life, since age 5, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After his first week of class in August 2019, he brought his dilemma to the Mormon temple in Billings, Montana.
There, he said he prayed for guidance and clarity.
His answer arrived in the form of a rush of warmth and forceful conviction that his future is helping others as a nurse.
In that moment he knew the longest act of his professional life, devoted to coal, was truly over. Tears rolled down his cheeks at the realization. He felt pain, joy and assurance all at once, balanced with plenty of unknown.
Most of all, he said there was an overwhelming spiritual sense that the community college nursing program was exactly where he should be.
The Moorcroft K-8 School classroom is silent except for the ticking of a clock on the wall.
Quiet but in motion, Burger leans over a table meant for small children and wipes a cleaning rag over it. Another rag rests on his shoulder. Black headphones dangle from his ears, the cord draped over a bright yellow shirt tucked into blue work jeans.
The sun has fully set behind the wall of windows across from him, and the brightly lit room casts his reflection against the glass.
Burger can’t hear the clock above him counting down each second of the several remaining hours in his shift. Instead, there’s a lesson on pharmacology in his ears, spoken by a robotic voice sped up to 1.5 speed.
Between work and school, he has little time to read and study. But his daughter downloaded textbooks onto his phone so he could listen while he works or during his 40-minute commute to class.
“I’m not reading too much. I’m listening,” he said. “Trying to learn this stuff, because that’s the only time I have to do it.”
It really is an insufferable voice reading to him, something between a car’s GPS guidance and a Chipmunk’s Christmas carol. But the ability to burn through chapters of text while staying focused on his job is what makes his delicate balance between school and work possible.
After a while, Burger said he got used to the voice. With nearly two semesters of nursing school completed, his schedule also doesn’t seem so bad anymore.
The stereotype of a hunched over coal worker navigating through underground tunnels with a shovel and headlamp, hands painted black from soot, is not quite the reality of the profession anymore. The pits in Wyoming are open, and many of Burger’s shifts were physically passive, either operating machinery or as a dispatcher, orchestrating the chaos required to mine and move millions of tons of coal.
The same train cars mocked him after his furlough before he came to peace with his new life as a student and soon-to-be nurse.
“I no longer feel like the trains are mocking me,” he said. “It’s not better for everybody, but it’s better for me.”
Ringing the blue mop head into a yellow bucket one last time, Burger has reached the end of his day. He rolls the bucket down the corridor he spent the night cleaning, past cubbies with tiny shoes and colorful notebooks then past the classroom of the kindergarten teacher who once taught his own children.
After pulling a gray hoodie over his shirt, he steps outside and onto the snowy sidewalk. He starts his car, the only one in the parking lot, and begins brushing off the dusting of snow that accumulated sometime in the haze of his night time day job.
The cycle will begin again tomorrow.
But pulling away from the parking lot, Burger grows one day closer to graduation. Nearby, the train tracks connecting his past life to his current one are empty and silent.
An accelerated plan to exit the Powder River Basin continues for Arch Resources Inc., which reported this week that it’s on pace to stop producing coal from its Coal Creek mine by the end of the year and to account for about 80% of its reclamation obligations at the mine by mid-2022.
“We are methodically harvesting value and cash from our legacy thermal assets, while working down our long-term closure obligations in a systematic and measured way,” said Arch Chief Executive Officer Paul A. Lang in a 2021 first-quarter earnings report released Thursday morning.
The company has already completed $8 million worth of work toward reducing Coal Creek’s retirement obligations along with $2 million for its flagship Black Thunder mine near Wright.
Overall, Arch reports a net loss of $6 million for the first quarter of the year, compared to losing $78.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2020 and $344.6 million overall in 2020.
After a sluggish start to the new year in January and February, mostly fueled by a continuing lag from the COVID-19 pandemic, Lang said the company had a very good March and is optimistic for that to continue into the summer.
That means it now feels like “business as usual at Arch in all the right ways,” Lang said, adding that the spread of the COVID-19 vaccine has had a positive impact on the company’s operations.
He also said that while the PRB mines continue to show a profit, at 98 cents per ton in the first quarter, the company remains committed to extracting itself from thermal coal and the Powder River Basin.
What about the workers?
What the continued acceleration to close Coal Creek and curtail mining at Black Thunder by about half means for the more than 1,000 people employed at Arch’s Wyoming mines seems to be a steady reduction in the workforce.
Employment more than doubled at Coal Creek in the first quarter of this year to 113 from 55 at the end of 2020, but most of those are reclamation jobs and include at least 40 people moved from Black Thunder. But at Black Thunder, the workforce has dropped from 1,177 at the end of 2020 to 909 by the end of March, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Overall, the 1,022 people employed by Arch in the PRB represent a drop of 213 positions, or more than 17% of the company’s Wyoming workforce.
In February, Arch officials said the company has a transition plan for PRB workers, but didn’t offer any details on what would be included in the plan and when it would be in effect.
Lang said then that a reduction in workers at the mines as production tails off is inevitable, “and we expect to achieve that in an employee-sensitive way.”
The News Record requested more information about the transition plan prior to Thursday’s report but hadn’t received a response as of press time for the weekend print edition.
What is clear is that Black Thunder remains a valuable asset for the company and is expected to be profitable enough to generate free cash for Arch and pay for the accelerated reclamation of the Wyoming mines, said John Drexler, chief operating officer.
While ramping down production significantly — from 72 million tons in 2019 to 50.2 million tons last year — Black Thunder gives the company “real opportunity to continue to generate significant cash,” Drexler said.
Despite some transportation issues in the first quarter, the nearly $1 per ton of profit realized from PRB coal is a good sign Black Thunder will continue to make money for the rest of the year, said Matthew Giljum, Arch’s chief financial officer.
“We want the thermal assets to pay their own way here with their ultimate closure costs,” he said. “A significant amount of cash from Black Thunder certainly helps to drive that.”
Still for sale
That ability to still generate cash despite a severely depressed market for thermal coal could make the PRB mines more attractive to potential buyers as time goes on, Lang said.
Selling the mines has always been an option, but there haven’t yet been any serious inquiries, he said during Thursday’s earnings call. But Arch is still on the lookout for buyers and is open to selling the mines, but only if conditions are right.
“We’ll only move forward with a sale if a buyer can meet our rigorous (requirements),” Lang said. In the mean time, the company is “moving ahead aggressively” with its shutdown plan.
Lang said when it comes to selling the mines, Arch Resources won’t just unload them to anyone and will want assurances that any new owner would be responsible and above-board operators. If they don’t feel that, Arch is OK with closing and reclaiming them.
“We feel pretty good about the strategy we put forth last fall,” he said. “We’re following our two-pronged approach. We’re going to continue to reduce our footprint (from the PRB). That starts with Coal Creek. We’ll also continue to look for a possible buyer for the assets.”
As Arch continues to back off production and do more reclamation, the mines could become more attractive to buyers because they have reduced bonding requirements, Lang said.
Campbell County finds itself in the middle of a fight that pits horse-racing businesses against each other. The standoff also could lead to a short-term shut-down in off-track betting and loss of tax revenue to the community.
The Campbell County Commissioners passed a resolution this week to foster the development of live horse racing in Campbell County.
The resolution gives the live horse racing operator control over off-track betting and simulcasting in the county. It also allows that written permission for simulcasting and off-track betting can be given to groups that aren’t putting on live horse races.
After more than three hours of public comment and a 20-minute executive session to discuss potential litigation, the commissioners passed the resolution on a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner D.G. Reardon voting against it.
307 Horse Racing recently signed a five-year exclusive contract to do live horse racing at Cam-plex, which essentially makes it the only operator that can hold live horse races in Gillette for the next five years. The group does not have any off-track betting sites in Campbell County at the moment.
The resolution does not name 307 Horse Racing, or any horse racing group for that matter.
It basically says that “whoever the live horse racing operator is gets to control the OTB activity,” said Jack Greer of 307 Horse Racing.
“It’s making sure that the gambling activity in this county is invested in horse racing in this county. That’s how it’s supposed to work,” he said.
Eugene Joyce, president of Wyoming Horse Racing, told commissioners that if they passed the resolution, one thing would happen.
“Everything is going to shut down on May 22,” he said.
May 22 is the date of 307 Horse Racing’s first race at Cam-plex. There are 16 race dates scheduled at Energy Downs over six weekends in May and June.
Wyoming Horse Racing has one off-track betting site in Gillette — the Horse Palace in the Sundance Lounge — and Wyoming Downs has two.
Off-track betting has been popular in Gillette. Under the law, some of the money that is gambled is returned to local municipalities. In 2020, the city and the county each received $597,308 in tax revenue from historic horse racing. In 2019, they each got $699,414.
On Monday, there is supposed to be a meeting where all the operators can get together and come to an agreement on how to move forward. There is the potential that a deal can be worked out and Gillette will have historic horse racing after May 22. It also is possible that there won’t be any of this activity until 307 Horse Racing opens an off-track betting site in Campbell County.
Joyce called the situation “a manufactured crisis” that started with 307 Horse Racing “blocking me from running 16 days in 2020.”
“I understand every play needs a villain, and I guess here I am,” Joyce said. “What they’re asking you for, I believe, is to fashion a gun, to put to my head, to force us to pay them money to pay for live horse racing. I don’t think that’s legal.”
Don Hamm, chairman of the Campbell County Public Land Board, said Cam-plex worked with Wyoming Horse Racing up until the spring of 2020. Hamm said Joyce decided he did not want to run live horse races in June, but “we had everything set up so that they could.”
“They took their toys out of the sandbox and went to Rock Springs,” Hamm said.
In April, the Sweetwater Events Complex canceled all of its events because of COVID-19, including Joyce’s live horse racing. He then began talking with Cam-plex staff about race dates at Morningside Park.
Joyce said that after talking with his lawyers, he did not believe he could run races at Cam-plex in June without violating state public health orders. He then explored the possibility of having races in August and September, and said he was feeling good about that.
On the last day of April, Cam-plex contacted him saying those summer dates were no longer available “due to an event formally booking them with a multi-year contract.”
307 Horse Racing signed a five-year contract with Cam-plex to be the sole live horse racing operator through 2025.
“When we found out those dates weren’t available, it was crisis time,” said Joyce’s attorney, Matt Micheli. “We have to run 16 days to save our permits. … That’s the only reason we went to Rock Springs.”
Hamm said Randy Greer, who owns and operates 307, already has invested in improvements at Morningside Park. And he has it set up so people can train their horses at Cam-plex, which is more revenue for the events center and the community as a whole.
The commissioners heard from several local horse breeders who are excited about the prospect of live horse racing at Cam-plex.
The issue comes down to interpretation of Wyoming law. It states that “no simulcasting may be conducted within 100 miles of any premises” where live horse racing happens. 307 Horse Racing argued that it has full rights to any off-track betting machines within 100 miles of Cam-plex for the whole year.
The Wyoming Attorney General’s opinion was that 307 Horse Racing would have the rights to those machines only on race days, or 16 days out of the year. The Wyoming Gaming Commission agreed, Joyce said.
“If this is about live horse racing, we support it,” Micheli said. “We want horse racing in Campbell County, but we want it to be on a level playing field.”
Joyce said he’s had almost no communication with 307 Horse Racing, having only one Zoom meeting since the business asked him at the start of the year to shut down his historic horse racing machines.
“I genuinely don’t know what they want,” Micheli said.
“What we’re looking for is protection for live race tracks, year-round,” Greer said.
Putting on a live horse race is expensive. In 2013, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill that legalized historic horse racing machines. The intent was for the revenue from those machines to help support live horse racing.
That same year, the Campbell County Commissioners passed a resolution allowing Wyoming Horse Racing to operate historic horse racing machines in the county to help support live racing.
Former commissioners Garry Becker and Micky Shober, who signed the resolution in 2013, said they never intended for an operator to have off-track betting but not live horse racing.
Commissioner Colleen Faber, who wrote the new resolution, said that “we want to make Campbell County open for horse racing business.”
“How can we justify having OTBs supporting everybody else’s tracks and not our own?” Faber asked, referring to Wyoming Horse Racing using some of the money from its OTB site in Gillette to help pay for live horse racing in other communities.
Joyce said it is a business model that has been in place for decades. Off-track betting locations in several communities around the state support live horse racing that takes place in only a few cities.
Joyce said he does not believe the issue is purely about live horse racing.
“I think the issue is, 307’s business model is not generating any revenue,” he said. “They should have had something in place on Jan. 1.”
Greer said he does not have any off-track betting locations open yet, but he plans to open sites in Gillette, Cheyenne, Casper, Rock Springs, Riverton and Torrington. He did not give a specific date, but said he would open them “as soon as we can.”
He told commissioners that Wyoming Horse Racing “invested money in OTBs to take money out of Campbell County. We want to invest in OTBs to keep it in Campbell County.”
Greer said his family does not like Wyoming Horse Racing’s proposals.
“We told 307, if you want us to sign a waiver, we’ll sign mutual waivers. We’re fine with that,” Micheli said. “If you want us to follow statute and shut down for 16 days, that’s fine too. Let’s just follow the law.”
“Sixteen days of protection is not what generates the funds to put on horse races, … it’s the year-round protection,” Greer said.
Ashley Robling, site manager at the Horse Palace, said there are more than 50 people who could be unemployed in a month. She introduced several of them to the commission.
“Why do you want to make 50 other people lose their jobs?” she asked the commissioners. “It’s just not fair.”
Hamm said he believes those people will still have jobs, but under a different boss.
“We’ve been assured by 307 that if they have simulcasting here, they will provide those jobs,” Hamm said. “And the best people to hire are the people that already know what they’re doing. I understand those people’s concerns, but it will be alleviated.”
Kris Brown, a manager at Wyoming Downs, said it is “a great opportunity for our community.”
“I’d actually be thrilled to be offered to work for 307 Horse Racing,” she said. “I think they’ll do a great job.”
Faber compared it to the current efforts to create a community college district in Campbell County. She read a quote by Josh McGrath, who said “there’s always a time for local control and for bettering our community.”
“We’re talking about the same thing,” she said.
Commissioner Del Shelstad said it is an issue of economic development, and he supports 307 Horse Racing wanting to invest in the community. He did not like how the group was treated by the state and Wyoming Horse Racing.
“This off-track betting business is politics at its worst,” he said. “This is lies and deceit and double standards like nothing I’ve ever seen. And quite frankly, it really pisses me off.”
Gillette City Attorney Anthony Reyes said that if the commission passed the resolution, “you’ll revoke Horse Palace and Wyoming Downs’ ability to do business in this county.”
“I don’t know that you can just take it away with the stroke of a pen,” he said.
The resolution reads that “the previous resolutions of the Campbell County Board of Commissioners concerning approval of simulcasting off of permitted live horse racetrack premises are hereby revoked and superseded by this Resolution.”
In 2013, the commission passed a resolution allowing Wyoming Horse Racing to open off-track betting sites in Campbell County.
Micheli argued that this “creates a vested right,” and the commissioners cannot take away that right without due process.
He asked the commissioners to table the resolution and go over it with the county attorney to clean up the language.
“We’re not trying in any way to stop 307 (Horse Racing),” Micheli said. “There’s plenty of room in the sandbox. We can all play together.”
The city of Gillette is worried about losing money, Reyes said. In 2020, the city and the county each received $597,308 in tax revenue from historic horse racing. In 2019, they each got $699,414.
He added that if the commissioners passed the resolution, it would set a dangerous precedent.
“If you do that, it’s a bad road, a slippery slope to go down,” he said. “What you end up doing is picking winners and losers.”
Reardon said he opposed the resolution for a number of reasons. He felt it was “a conflict of free market enterprise,” and he did not think the commission should be picking one business over another.
Commissioner Rusty Bell said that “it’s really clear where the residents of Campbell County are on this,” and the people have to be willing to “accept the consequences,” whether they’re good or bad.
“We’re going to accept the wins and the losses with that,” he said.