Wendy Hutchinson: Making the Land Better for Everyone

 
Wendy Hutchinson

Wendy Hutchinson

Protecting the environment is extremely important for Wendy Hutchinson and the people in the coal industry. As a Regulatory Affairs Manager at the Black Thunder Mine in Wyoming, she worked with both the government and the mining company to make sure that all of the mining activities they do (their “affairs”) follow the laws (the “regulations”) to protect the environment.

More recently, Wendy has adapted the skills and experience she gained at Black Thunder Mine to a new job as Vice President of Public Affairs at Millennium Bulk Terminals, at a port in Longview, Washington. Here she is working to clean up and redevelop the port into a world-class facility that will create jobs and help support families in the community. One of the products that they handle at the port is coal—which Wendy knows how to handle in an environmentally safe way because of her work at the coal mine!

Here’s what Wendy had to say about some of the important work that she has done:

What kind of work is done at coal mines to protect the environment?

Coal companies mine coal so it can be used to make clean, affordable electricity. At Black Thunder Mine, for example, we monitored all of the environmental details while the coal was being mined. We made sure to keep the air, land, and water clean. When the coal is done being mined, the land is reclaimed (restored) so it can be used for agriculture and wildlife habitat.

The land at Black Thunder Mine was used by ranchers to raise their cattle. We borrowed the land from the ranchers while we mined the coal. When we finished mining, we reclaimed the area by putting the land back and planting native grasses and shrubs. Once the grass gets growing, the ranchers bring their cattle back and the land is just like it was before—or better.

We also did special projects to make the land better for wildlife. We built a lake that attracts hundreds of ducks and geese who travel through Wyoming when they are migrating. There is no hunting allowed on the mine, so it also makes a good home for deer, elk, antelopes, foxes, hawks, and other animals.

What kind of skills have been the most useful to you?

Math and science have always been important, but I have used my English skills every day, too. I worked with the government to get permission to mine the land, which has to be done in writing. You have to write well enough to explain what the coal company is planning. You have to do this in a way that is clear to the government and the public.

Communication skills were also important when meeting with people in the government and presenting the coal company’s plans. When they came to inspect the mine site, I went with them to explain our activities, so they would feel confident that we were obeying the law and protecting the environment. (I continue to use these communications skills in my new job as Vice President of Public Affairs!)

When I worked at Black Thunder Mine, I had field work, too. I had to look at all the coal mining activities and monitor the air and water and count the wildlife. I made sure that we were being as environmentally friendly as we could be when doing the mining and the reclamation.

Part of my job was using computers to design what the land would look like once we reclaimed it. Computers help us create the shape of the ground surface and design where the hills are going to be and where the creeks are going to run. One of the cool things is that those computer models can be put into a GPS unit in a bulldozer. The bulldozer can then build exactly what we have designed!

What did you like most about working in the coal industry?

I liked being able to see results. I could see the land reshaped, the topsoil returned, the plants seeded, and the land grow back into prairie. At Black Thunder Mine, the reclamation is actually two to three times as productive as the native land. There’s more grass out there for the animals. Seeing the wildlife come back to those areas is pretty cool.

The important thing to me when I was choosing a career was that I wanted to do something that I would feel very good about. I definitely wanted a job that helped the environment. Working at a coal mine is a “green” job, because you are taking coal out of the ground and turning the area back into green land. I feel really great about the important role I’ve played in reclaiming the land.

Why is land reclamation such an important part of coal mining?

I was involved in Girl Scouts as a kid, and one thing we learned is that you want to leave a place better than you found it. That is exactly what the coal industry is doing with land reclamation.

Everything we use in our lives—whether it’s electricity, water, a car, anything—has an environmental price tag. What can you do to minimize your impact? We dig up the land when we mine it, but in the process we are providing a huge amount of good electricity. When we are done mining, we put the land back, we leave, and the land can once again be a home for plants, animals, and people. We find a balance between getting the electricity we all need and giving back to the environment we all share.

 

Meet another person with a cool career in the coal industry: Mining engineer Jamie Torske.

Be sure to see the accompanying lesson plan: Coal, Careers and You