As a roof bolter, Ken Knusta had one of the most dangerous jobs in coal mining. He would follow miners after they cut deeper into the New Future Mine in Galatia, Illinois, and secure the ceilings of the new tunnels. He did this every workday for six years, from seven in the morning until six at night. “It was strenuous, and you were gone all day long,” says Knusta, a father of three. “It’s hard on your family because you don’t get to see your kids grow up.”
Then, a year and a half ago, New Future’s owner, American Coal, laid him off, along with hundreds of other employees, many of whom lived in Saline County, where the mine was located, or in nearby Franklin County.
But Knusta had a plan. After hearing about earlier rounds of good-size layoffs in 2015 and keenly aware that his job could be next on the chopping block, he bought a building he could renovate and turn into a barbecue joint with advice from a buddy of his in the restaurant business. The coal industry was going downhill, and while a restaurant can be risky, too, it was a viable alternative for him. A week before Knusta planned to quit, he got the call from American Coal laying him off. The way Knusta describes it, he was one of the lucky ones. A bunch of his coworkers transferred to other mines farther from home or went to work at a local tire or automobile parts factory, where wages were significantly lower. “I looked for an out before I didn’t have a choice,” Knusta says.
The story of coal mine closures is one that echoes across the southern stretches of the state. Illinois coal country is the site of some of our nation’s first fossil fuel mines, and since commercial operations began there in 1810, it’s been home to 7,400 coal mines. Today New Future is one of fewer than two dozen sites that remain in operation, though the Prairie State is still the country’s fourth-highest coal producer. (American Coal ran two mines in the region until last year, when it shuttered its New Era facility, also in Saline County.)
Despite what economists and energy experts predict for the industry’s future, President Trump has promised to “put our miners back to work,” which makes him pretty popular with the Illinois coal community. At a rally last year, employees from Pattiki Coal in White County presented then-candidate Trump with a coal miner’s hard hat. His administration’s strategy to boost the coal industry includes repealing the Clean Power Plan, allowing companies to dump mining waste into waterways, and letting coal producers mine federal lands without paying full royalties.
But even with those destructive favors from the White House, the coal industry is unlikely to come roaring back now that natural gas is so much cheaper and the renewable energy industry is growing. State legislators passed a renewable energy bill last year that “greatly increases our energy efficiency goals and restarts the renewable energy industry in Illinois,” says Karen Hobbs, deputy director of the Midwest program at NRDC. And if coal production in Illinois were to increase (and that’s a big if), it wouldn’t usher in a wave of new jobs with it, mostly due to automation.
Illinois coal country hit its peak in the 1920s, producing 73 million tons a year.
The amount still surprises Illinois Coal Association President Phil Gonet: “We didn’t have the machines we have today. A lot of it was manual labor.” Indeed, it took 100,000 workers to dig that coal out of the ground.
As technology improved, companies could mine more coal with fewer miners. By the 1980s, Illinois had 10,000 workers producing 60 million tons. Now, fewer than 4,000 miners extract around 55 million tons annually, thanks to haul trucks and loaders, long-distance haul trains, crushers, rock breakers, shovel swings, and drilling and tunnel-boring systems—all machine operated.
Between the mid-1980s and today, the state “produced the same amount of coal with about half of the workforce,” says Gonet. Coal production is “not going to be the job producer that it was in the past.”
Even though automation has eaten up many of the industry’s jobs, some coal advocates prefer to blame environmental laws. In the 1990s, Clean Air Act amendments began requiring coal-fired power plants to scrub acid rain–causing and smog- and soot-producing pollutants from their emissions. Illinois’s coal, higher in sulfur than what was extracted in Wyoming (the country’s top producer), became less sought-after, especially by companies operating power plants that lacked scrubbing technology. Production dipped. Then mercury regulations that reduce this neurotoxin’s accumulation in the environment (and our bodies) went into effect in the early 2010s. Production dropped (again) before climbing but still with fewer and fewer jobs.
Unemployment in the state is highest in southern Illinois counties. Last November, Franklin County voted Republican for the first time in decades, and concern over coal was one reason cited. In addition, Governor Bruce Rauner recently proposed changing how the state calculates the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions of a fleet of eight coal-fired power plants, imposing annual caps that are less stringent than the current rate-based pollution limits. Should the Illinois Pollution Control Board approve the proposal, the plants would be able to run more frequently. The switch could double the fleet’s sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions relative to last year’s.
So where would that leave Knusta’s mining buddies? About 200 billion tons of coal still lie beneath Illinois, and about half of that is retrievable, according to the Illinois State Geological Study. “We have an abundance of coal,” says Gonet. But since much of that will likely be mined with computer software rather than elbow grease, the energy companies are the ones that stand to gain, not the communities of Franklin and Saline counties.
Still, many miners continue to hold on to Trump’s promises. Knusta isn’t one of them. Near his hometown of Herrin, he’s busy building out Route 148 BBQ. “I started a new business on my own,” he says. “It’s a whole lot less strenuous but a whole lot more headaches.”
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