Coal miner's Daughter


Spotlight on the first woman chair of the Mining Engineering Department’s Industrial Advisory Board — Denee Hayes.

Denee Hayes with her father at the Mining Engineering Department's award ceremony 2023.

“The work I’ve done both within and outside of the mining industry has helped me understand what the outside community thinks about mining,” says Denee Hayes BSME’02. She explains that there is a misunderstanding about how mining contributes to green energy, sustainability and the environment. Through her diverse work experience, she developed the talking points and negotiating skills to be a moderator and mediator between mining and environmental groups. “It really shaped the work that I’m doing today in mining, manufacturing as well as utilities and other sectors.”  

While not on the trajectory of the late Loretta Lynn, whose 1971 Grammy-winning song “Coal Miner’s Daughter (and later, the Academy Award-winning bio-pic starring Sissy Spacek) told the story of the country singer’s upbringing in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky and her elevation into stardom, Hayes’ journey is no less auspicious. In fact, Hayes’ career may end up having a profound impact on the defining issues of our times. Arguably, it already has.  

Hayes was raised in Farmington, NM by parents who owned an oil and gas business. Her father was from Carbon County, Utah and not only worked in oil and gas as well as in mining sales. He also drove a truck for the coal mines in Wyoming. Both of her grandfathers also worked in oil/gas, construction and mining in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Even before high school graduation, Hayes showed an interest in getting a degree in mining engineering. Poised to swoop in, the University of Utah offered a full-ride scholarship and, critically, the industry offered internships and industry experiences starting the summer before she arrived on campus in 1994.  


Thought leader 

Since graduation in 2002 Hayes has become a thought leader in the necessary convergence of mining and the new green economy. This, while working for nine years in-house with Utah’s Kennecott Copper until 2020 when she pivoted to private consulting, which she continues to this day.  On the academic side, she was the first woman chair of the Mining Engineering department’s industrial advisory board. 

 The stakes right now in reimagining the mining sector as it relates to a green economy could not be higher. Regarding the climate challenge at large, we really only have one chance to get it right, according to New York Times David Wallace-Wells. In a recent Tanner Humanities Lecture at the U, the climate journalist reported that half of all carbon emissions have come about in just the last 25 years. Even more startling, the weight of that carbon (yes, there are methods of measuring it), is more than the total mass of everything ever built by humans and still standing on earth.  

 Hayes and her colleagues and collaborators may well be up to the herculean task as they look more closely at the complexity of the mining/environment conundrum, and to find allies. “I like the ability to pull together — the interdisciplinary approach — to solving these problems and issues,” she says.  “Diversity of thought and mining engineering gave me the technical knowledge and the language to work between the parties.” She views her training at the U as forging her into a “jack of all trades,” earning a degree that crosses various kinds of engineering — mechanical, civil, electrical — with the pure sciences of physics, chemistry and high-level mathematics. This interdisciplinary approach has threaded through her training and work experience via software development, utilities, manufacturing, architecture, mining engineering, integrated operations, and corporate leadership, all while deploying her signature bridge-building skills.  

 The span between mining and the environmental ethic is not a small one, and it is by dint of Hayes’ experience in a variety of sectors that she has forged her current work as a consultant. “The work I think I did [at Kennecott and elsewhere] gave me a view of two sides, really seeing how the industry has a PR problem and that mining [professionals] have really pitted themselves against environmentalists and other industries, and how we really need to show that if you are pro-green energy you have to be pro-mining.”  

At first blush, such a statement seems counterintuitive, but she continues. “If you think about the trajectory society is currently on “there are ebbs and flows in everything for green energy” whether it’s photovoltaic materials to convert sunlight into electric energy or other sources of renewable energy, like wind and hydro power.  

The greening of America 

To keep up with green economy demands, Hayes explains that the world “will need to mine the same amount of copper between now and 2030/40 as we have in all of humanity,” And that is an example of just one metal. “Because there’s that much copper that goes into those things [i.e., green technologies, coupled] with population growth, even power transmission — from coal or a green energy source —  you still utilize copper and a whole host of other critical minerals within that energy transmission and distribution.”   

Do you rely on a mobile phone? Hayes is quick to remind us that more than half of the periodical table goes into producing and running your cell phone. Furthermore, “anything in the periodic table needs to be mined.” 

The challenge of greening America is not just about extraction of critical metals from new as well as historical mines (known as brownfield sites) which are being re-opened and are using new technologies to re-mine, for example, tailings. It’s also about water use, of particular concern to those of us in the West. Part of building a consensus between two opposing sides is to hold a space for both without papering over reality, on either side.  

“I think that we now have an opportunity to right some of the wrongs of mining in the past and some of the ways that we didn’t understand how we were harming the Earth,” she says, not only referencing Environmental Protection Agency-designated superfund sites of mines but seeing the sector from the view of digital optimization of the entire value chain. These involve standards, both enforced by governmental regulations as well as industry best practices that don’t exist outside the U.S. which is why Americans have relied on questionable extraction services outside the country, something that Hayes finds unacceptable. “If we want to continue leading the lives we are leading, we have to do our own extraction operations of critical materials ethically.” 

Ethical practices extend as well to current mining employees and can only add to efficiencies that stakeholders demand. Hayes values “helping connect the executive level strategy to the front line, figuring out how to get the front line activated to enact that strategy.” In other words, it's not just about getting employee “buy-in” but demonstrating the “how,” to all of them — operators, maintainers, samplers and surveyors on site — of deploying lofty executive team decisions. “You’re leading people and focused on their safety and well-being and not just managing the tasks at hand,” she says.  

It's all part of Hayes’ “holistic” approach to the issues, of thinking outside the blast hole, as it were, and through the “muck” (a general term in the industry of blasted rock that is ready to be loaded). A thoughtful intervention characterized by the belief that the parts of something are interconnected and can be explained only by reference to the whole is how “defining problems” of our age get solved . . . or at least managed.   

Moving the needle 

In the field.

And clearly for Hayes, it’s not just about operations, safety and profit — or even of financial stakeholders for that matter. It’s about moving the needle in the industry towards not only a greener way of doing things, but a more just and equitable way of doing those things as well.  

 The systemic reimagining of mining is a daunting proposition, and it requires bringing in diverse voices to inform, what Hayes calls, the “broader topics of that broader conversation.” She well remembers being an undergraduate — one of only three or four women in the department. That hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years with most mining organizations reporting only 7-10 percent of a work force made up of women.  

 “The real work needs to be for everyone to understand that a career in mining is a career for the environment, for green energy, and having that will be an attraction for people to come in. [We need to] make it psychologically safe to work in this industry, which it hasn’t always been. It’s work that we all have to do . . . .When you’re trying to tackle these large problems in industry you really need the diversity of thought that comes out of these different mining programs.”  

 The U’s program is no different. As with other institutions of higher education, its metrics of success are research, funding, student enrollment, and student success. “Industry needs to do its part to help create a pipeline of students to the U as well as look to the university to do some of their important research.” “The same holds true in reverse, universities need to be asking industry what will be most impactful for mining of the future.” If things don’t change, mining engineering departments across the country like the U’s will dwindle and die. “We’ve seen that in West Virginia,” she says, referencing beleaguered West Virginia University. In August the flagship Morgantown campus proposed eliminating nine percent of the majors and seven percent of its full-time faculty members.  

Critical materials, critical thought 

Fewer and fewer programs in all academic fields means less and less diversity of thought, which is critically needed. Hayes intends to advocate for better associations between industry and the university for this very reason. It’s a personally held mission that might have not only a macro difference but a micro one as well in these challenging times. She and her husband are the proud parents of another proverbial “miner’s daughter,” and her daughter is likely to be better positioned to consider a degree and a career in mining engineering because of her mother’s continuing hard work in the sector.  

When Denee Hayes recently won an honorary alumna award at the department’s most recent awards ceremony, the coal miner’s daughter had her dad in the room. “He was ecstatic to come and see me.” she says with a smile.  

by David Pace