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Originally published Friday, December 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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State's last coal mine shuts; Centralia hit hard

Workers found out Monday that they were losing their jobs — some of the best-paying ones around. Also left reeling is the city, just coming out of a slump.

Seattle Times staff reporter

CENTRALIA — Ted Pilz lost his job as a mechanic this week when Washington's only coal mine shut down. So on Wednesday he headed there for one last task. He had to pick up his tools.

During his 11 years on the job, Pilz had simply flashed his identification and cruised through the main gate on the way to the mine. This time, he had security escorts who trailed his every move.

"They used to trust me enough to work on a $1 million piece of equipment," Pilz said. "I felt like I was a criminal."

It was the uneasy end of an era here in the state's coal country since the Canadian owner, TransAlta, gave up on its troubled strip mine. The announcement meant the abrupt end of more than 550 union jobs, paying an average of more than $55,000 a year. They were some of the best blue-collar jobs in Southwest Washington, a bright spot in a lackluster Lewis County economy.

The news broke in a week that would have otherwise been dominated by coffee-shop talk about the Centralia High School football team's first trip to the state championship game since 1980. Now, city pride is mixing with anger, frustration and anxiety. Hundreds of miners and their families may stay here and try to make it. But hundreds now may go. And hundreds of other jobs tied to the coal mine will likely bleed from the region.

"Trickle-down? How about a flood?" said Rich Judson, who owns Mr. J's, a drive-in restaurant on the road to the mine.

"There are so many businesses that have come to rely on the mine: the water vendor, the Porta Potti guy and that espresso guy who built up his whole business out of being open at 4 a.m. for the early morning shift."

A difficult time

TransAlta has owned the property in a valley northeast of Centralia since 2000. The mine spreads across some 14,000 acres and butts up against the company's coal-fired power plant, which generates electricity equivalent to about 8 percent of the state's consumption.

TransAlta officials will continue to employ 225 workers at the power plant, which will now be fed with coal imported from Wyoming and Montana.

Officials say the move was the result of escalating costs at the aging mine. The only way mining could resume would be if new permits are granted to dig in other undisturbed areas.

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For mine workers, the last day was Monday, when the afternoon shift was called to the main shop for the surprise announcement. Workers would get 60 days of pay and benefits under federal law, but their work would end that day.

Company officials said they feared that workers might be distracted and suffer accidents if they kept them working for the 60 days, and they wanted to give them time to look for work. Some workers believe the company also was worried about sabotage.

In the months ahead, TransAlta officials have pledged to help workers find new jobs. And several out-of-state mining companies are already recruiting.

TransAlta has also promised $5 million to help the community cope with the mine closure, and it will donate 1,000 acres of land to the Lewis County Economic Development Council.

"This has been a very difficult time for TransAlta," said Doug Jackson, the company's president of U.S. operations. "We will do the right thing here not only for our employees but for the community."

A springboard for change?

Centralia, a city of more than 15,000 people situated roughly halfway between Portland and Seattle, has been struggling for years to rebuild an economy once reliant on timber and other natural resources. A decade ago, the historic downtown was severely run-down, with half the businesses shuttered and the second-story apartments full of what Mayor Tim Browning calls "unsavory tenants."

Today, downtown occupancy rates are about 80 percent, and the new tenants include an opera company renovating the old Fox Theater. There also is a flush of development on the west side of town, along Interstate 5.

But Centralia still will be hit hard by the mine closure. Browning admits that few jobs in Centralia can match the wages TransAlta paid.

The mayor is convinced that the city will keep moving forward, perhaps using the mine closure as a springboard for change. He believes Centralia can attract more light manufacturing and distribution companies. The outlines are already emerging at the Port of Centralia industrial park, where InterSpace Systems, a company that produces deep-sea breathing devices, is one of more than 25 tenants.

Still, Browning knows that a lot of the mine workers won't be sticking around. On Wednesday morning, he spoke with a miner who was confused and upset. By the afternoon, the miner was a lot more upbeat. He had already scored an interview in Nevada with a gold-mining company.

"I hate to see them leave my county," Browning said. "But it is the way of the world."

Many of the older miners have deep roots in Southwest Washington and want to stay.

Pilz, 47, who helped service the trucks that carried 300 tons of coal at a time, figures he can find another mechanic's job and continue to live in the rural Lewis County hamlet of Doty.

Brad Holtberg, 57, will remain in his hometown of Centralia. He started working at the mine 34 years ago, as soon as he came home from Vietnam. The last few years at the mine had been difficult, with landslides and layoff rumors, and mistrust of management. But he loved the challenge of his job: working a huge digging machine that stripped away 100 tons of earth to get at the coal.

"It was like molding something out of clay," Holtberg said. "You would see it in your mind's eye, and when you see it through to completion, that was nice."

Now, with a comfortable savings, he'll raise cattle and maybe get a lower-paying job to keep himself occupied.

A quieter time

As for the mine, more than 3,793 acres have been dug up for coal over the years. More than 1,700 acres of that has been reclaimed with topsoil and vegetation.

But the Hanaford Valley is no longer the pastoral farming community it once was.

In a weatherworn house near the mine, farmer Dick Teitzel is surrounded by land that was mined and reclaimed as he steadfastly refused to sell his home. Over the decades, he watched with sadness as his father's house and his grandfather's house were torn down to get at the coal underneath.

In recent years, he has soured on TransAlta. He says he can no longer hunt on mine land where he has bagged prize bucks to mount on his living-room walls. Now Teitzel says he is looking forward to some peace and quiet.

But he still mourns the loss of the mine.

"I really just feel bad for the guys who lost their jobs," he said. "This was good for the community."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times reporter Warren Cornwall contributed to this report.

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