Keith Williams is about to steer his Ford Expedition 300 feet down a dirt road into one of the largest open pit mines in the world.
"Down we go," says Williams, who’s in charge here at the Black Thunder mine.
The first thing that hits you is the sheer size of this operation. Dump trucks as big as California bungalows rumble around us. Back and forth. Clearing away millions of pounds of clay and dirt to get at the rich coal seam underneath.
It's like peering into an ant colony under siege.
The U.S. produces about a billion tons of coal every year. Almost half of it is mined here in the Powder River Basin in the northeastern corner of the state of Wyoming.
Five ports in Washington and Oregon are considering building export terminals to ship American coal to Asia. The debate is heating up in the Northwest over the economic promise and environmental impacts. But 1,200 miles away in Wyoming, coal mining is already delivering dollars and driving concerns about water quality and changing lifestyles.
There are 12 other strip mines like this one in the Wyoming section of the Powder River Basin. They loosely encircle the city of Gillette like a string of black pearls - or gaping holes in the earth.
But where some see gaping holes, others see jobs.
Overwhelmingly, people here are proud of the coal industry. It is one of the key economic forces that transformed Gillette from a cow town along the rail line into a mini-metropolis amidst these dry rolling grasslands.
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