By Dave Marston
Writers on the Range
Until the pandemic restricted coal mining to those 60 or younger in Gunnison County in western Colorado, Gary Brezonick wasn’t thinking about retirement. He’d worked as a coal miner for 49 years, and going underground at the West Elk Coal Mine near the town of Paonia suited him just fine.
“You gotta see it,” he said of the mine, where miners shear coal from walls 1,800 feet underground. “It’s great — amazing — like a city!”
You can check, but there’s little competition: Until COVID-19 hit, he was the state’s oldest miner still on the job. Light on his feet and compact, he easily looks a decade younger.
The son of Croatian immigrants, Brezonick grew up in the nearby company town of Somerset, Colo. Perched above a river in a razor-thin valley, the town was isolated from the modern world. With its one tavern and proximity to four active mines, Croatian-English patois filled the carports and garages where the men relaxed after work.
“I grew up listening to the men talk coal. I felt like I knew life underground before I’d set foot in a mine,” Brezonick said. “And over the years, I mined with some great guys. That’s what made the work really great.”
Brezonick was only 20 when he first went underground to work alongside his father, Martin, whose dad had also been a coal miner. He loved hearing stories from the 1940s when his father was then a young miner.
“Martin would work all day at the Somerset Mine, owned by Mineral Development Corporation, eat dinner, then go back under to lay explosives he bought himself with scrip at the company store.”
Before heavy equipment changed the job, his father worked with a pick and shovel, was paid by the ton and “all the men had arms like Popeye.” Average pay was about $3 per day.
Instead of going underground right after high school, Gary Brezonick joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam, where he was one of only three survivors in a 12-man platoon ambushed by North Vietnamese.
“In this life, it’s all about inches,” he says, showing a forehead scar from a bullet that veered off his helmet. Brezonick returned to Colorado with a purple heart, eager to enter the booming coal mines. It was 1971.
By the time he was forced to stop working recently, his job had become high-tech, guiding machinery that set the mine’s steel and concrete roof pillars. Once an area was mined by a multimillion dollar long-wall machine, his crew sealed off the mined areas with mine waste called gob before moving on to the next section.
Brezonick breathed in a lot of coal and rock dust over the decades, but even though his chest x-ray showed what he called “a big spot” — evidence of black lung — he was denied medical benefits. He said the doctor wanted to know why he was still mining and looked “so healthy.”
Gary Brezonick doesn’t spell out all of his reasons, but unlike his father and grandfather, he kept his son, Matt, from joining him underground.
“Dad drew a line — I wasn’t going be fourth-generation; I wasn’t going underground,” Matt Brezonick said. “‘Get an education’” was the message from his dad.
Gary Brezonick knows he made a tough choice for his son and in a way it seems contradictory: “It was a thrill for me working underground with my own dad,” he admits.
Gary Brezonick rattles off the surnames of some of the men he worked with, and I recognize them from my childhood in the North Fork Valley. He’s naming legends, all multigenerational coal miners.
He knows that the huge furnaces that burn coal are closing fast.
“I don’t think coal will recover and society has turned against it,” he said. As little as 10 years ago, coal still accounted for 50 percent of U.S. electricity production.
But only 22 percent of electricity will come from coal in 2020, reports the Energy Information Agency. Climate-related issues combined with utilities switching to cheap renewables means the business is contracting by 12-15 percent per year.
Still, Gary Brezonick’s goal is going back underground to run his crew when he turns 70 — and beyond. For now, though, he isn’t talking about that possibility: He’s furious at being laid off, said his son.
Meanwhile, added Matt Brezonick with a grin, “My dad has a new job hauling dirt for a contractor in Telluride.”
He predicts his dad will be working — and working hard — until his last breath.
David Marston is a contributor to Writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He grew up in Paonia, Colo., and lives in New York and Paonia.