Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
WATERFLOW – The cawing of crows filled the air on Wednesday morning at the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station outside of Farmington.
Normally, workers must wear earplugs as they walk through the plant because the machinery is so noisy. But in the final hours before the generating station completely shut down on Wednesday, parts of the facility were nearly silent, making it easy to hear the echoey calls of birds roosting in the cavernous plant.
Five years ago, there were almost 300 workers at San Juan. By the end of this week, just 60 will remain, and they too will depart next month after safely shutting everything down.
“You went out there back in the day … those big parking lots were full,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, former plant worker and now assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 611. “It looked just like someone kicked an anthill.”
The generating station has continuously provided electricity for Public Service Company of New Mexico and other utilities for 50 years.
But with the costs of coal generation hovering way above the declining costs for renewables, plus local and national pressure to transition to carbon-free resources, PNM and other plant co-owners agreed to completely close San Juan in 2017.
Two of the plant’s four generating units closed in December 2017, and a third unit shut down in June. The final unit remained online until this week to help PNM avoid blackouts during this summer’s heat waves.
It’s the end of an era for many workers in Farmington and surrounding communities.
“Power plant jobs used to be a career,” Fitzgerald said. “You can work there until you retire.”
This week, he’s witnessed the layoff of 50 other union members.
For five decades San Juan’s doors have never been locked. The plant ran 24/7 as workers rotated through 12-hour shifts.
But management has let the plant’s coal and chemical resources steadily deplete in anticipation of closure, said operations manager Curtis McGee. As of Wednesday, San Juan was down to its last pile of coal from the nearby San Juan Coal Mine, which itself shut down on Sept. 13. And on Wednesday morning, workers shoveled the last scoop of limestone, which is used to scrub out sulfur.
“We have about a day or two of coal on the ground,” McGee said. “We just got this itty-bitty pile out there… It’s very unnerving to see that.”
All San Juan’s laid-off workers must find new jobs, either within PNM or elsewhere, or retire. PNM is investing $20 million in economic development in the San Juan region, as well as $20 million for worker assistance. It’s already spent more than $10 million in severance packages and $1.3 million in job training for affected employees, including 88 who received education funding assistance, said PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval.
Plant Director Rodney Warner saw San Juan being built in the 1970s. He started working there in 1979, and now he’ll retire as the plant shuts down.
“That’s where I started my career,” Warner said.
Neither Warner nor McGee plans on leaving Farmington. McGee has an elderly father who lives in Farmington and who he helps care for.
“Ultimately, for me, it comes down to my family,” McGee said. “… I could have gone forward with PNM and probably found a place to land there. But I chose family over that.”
McGee will open a small business after his last day on Sept. 29. But first, he plans to go hunting, he said.
Jack Dowdy is one of 48 employees that will take advantage of PNM’s retraining programs and transfer within the utility rather than being laid off.
Dowdy moved to Farmington from Cloudcroft in 2003, and started working at the plant four years later as a contractor. He became a PNM employee in 2013.
He has deep roots at the San Juan. Both his grandfather and grandmother worked at the plant and retired from PNM. And his father was a supervisor there.
Dowdy himself planned to retire from the plant. He called it “gut-wrenching” to learn in 2017 that the plant would eventually close.
He transferred within PNM and moved to Albuquerque in 2019.
“I didn’t want to be competing against all my friends (for jobs) when the closure actually came,” Dowdy said.
Although Dowdy’s wife and kids moved with him to Albuquerque, his dad remained in Farmington. Moving to a bigger city, away from his extended family, has been a difficult transition for Dowdy and his family.
“It’s definitely a change of environment, a change of pace, definitely a completely different animal for me to get used to,” said Dowdy, who was promoted to PNM craft supervisor last year.
But he enjoys his work at PNM. He said he’s able to learn new things every day, and plans to work for the company “as long as they’ll have me.”
End of an era
Fitzgerald said that although many union workers want to stay in Farmington, there aren’t a lot of comparable jobs in the region that could utilize their skills or that offer similar pay.
“There’s economic impacts all throughout, but the biggest economic impact is to each one of those guys that are working out there and getting displaced,” Fitzgerald said. “… Those members are my guys.”
Although McGee and Warner both expressed pride in the work they and other employees have done at the plant, they said the end is bittersweet.
“The hardest thing to walk away from, it’s not the facilities, it’s the people – the people and the relationships,” McGee said.