Mine worker at Healy faces uncertain future

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

HEALY (AP) -- Unemployed truck driver Joe Juhl isn't certain what his future holds.

''Joe gave me an opportunity to do all this,'' he said, motioning to his wife and 2-year-old daughter while sitting in the screened porch during a sunny afternoon late last week. ''It's a good company to work for.''

Joe is Joe Usibelli Jr. and the company is Usibelli Coal Mine. Late last week, Juhl pondered his career options after working for the company nearly 12 years. May 24 was Juhl's last day of work at the Healy coal mine.

Juhl, who drove a 150-ton coal truck, has worked for Usibelli since he was 21. ''He got a call from Usibelli and took off as fast as he could,'' said Erin Juhl, his wife, referring to his initial hire while he was in college. Now he is faced with several options to support his family, none of them long-term.

He could wait for a National Missile Defense job at Fort Greely to open, but that isn't appealing since he would have to sell his home and move or commute 400 miles round-trip to Delta Junction. He doesn't want to move from Healy or be away from his family, Olivia, 2; Logan, 4; and Liam, 6.

Juhl could also take a short-term but high-paying job working construction within the Denali National Park and Preserve. But in the end, Juhl's best option is going back to the mine for the summer to fill in for vacationing employees, he said.

''It's the insurance for the kids,'' he said.

The coal mine company phased out 23 union positions and expects to cut nine more in August, said Steve Denton, Usibelli mine manager. The company was not able to renew its annual 750,000-ton coal contract with the South Korea-based Hyundai Merchant Marine.

Usibelli couldn't compete with other countries that are closer to South Korea and producing coal cheaply. Usibelli has had the contract since the mid-1980s and it represented nearly half of the company's production.

Even without the layoffs, the mine was going through big changes, said Keith Walters, assistant mine manager. The mine is harvesting the last thick layers of coal sandwiched between beige bands of sand and gravel at the pit known as Poker Flats after over 25 years of mining.

There is a chance Juhl could return to the plant full time if the $267 million Healy Clean Coal Plant becomes operational. The project was funded by the federal government to find a new way to burn coal efficiently and with less impact on the environment, but after years of dispute, the plant is idle.

Currently, there is a multi-million dollar plan to retrofit the plant, which would supply energy to the Fairbanks-based Golden Valley Electric Association. But the money is tied up in Congress.

Usibelli, the coal mine's president, wanted to make sure that the landing was soft for laid-off employees, according to Usibelli resource director Meg Day. In order for employees to prepare themselves, the company let people know months ago that layoffs were likely, Day said.

It's still not certain who will be losing jobs, because both union and nonunion employees have the opportunity to take a generous volunteer retirement package and therefore open up jobs for other employees. That program won't end until June so there is a chance some workers will be called back then, Day said.

The mine is the largest contributor to the quality of life in Healy, said Neal Fried, a state economist with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. According to state figures, Healy's median family income is $58,499 annually.

The layoffs will have a noticeable impact in Healy, a community of about 1,000 people, Fried said. ''We're talking about some of the best or if not the best paying jobs there.''

While coal was king in Healy decades ago, other job sources have grown into significant contributors. More than half of the top twenty employers in the Healy area are related to tourism traffic for Denali National Park and Preserve, 12 miles from Healy, according to a state report. It is the fastest growing sector in the Denali Borough and appears to be the future of economic growth for the area, the report said.

Clear Air Force Station is another economic leg, the state report said. Less than 50 miles from Healy, the base is the recipient of a small portion of the $325 million contract for National Missile Defense.

For the time being, it's too early to tell how deep the layoffs will go, many residents say. About 20 homes are for sale, ranging in price from $70,000-$275,000, said local Realtor Cheryl Adamyk. Adamyk couldn't say how many of those homes for sale are directly related to the mine cutbacks.

''There are rumors about who will stay and who will go and in general a lot of uncertainty,'' she said.

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