Illinois county tries to absorb mine closure

Ill. county struggles to absorb closure of 400-worker mine; operation called 'unsustainable'

Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Peabody Energy Corp.'s plans to close a 400-worker Illinois coal mine marks another "heartbreaking" hit for a struggling region still mending from a deadly tornado last year and another coal producer's intent to shed dozens of jobs, a top administrator said Wednesday.

St. Louis-based Peabody announced this week that one of its subsidiaries, Big Ridge Inc., will permanently shutter its Willow Lake Mine near Equality in Saline County. It said the operation was "unsustainable" due to the mine's failure to meet acceptable standards for safety, compliance and performance.

Work at the mine had been idled since Nov. 17, when a 30-year-old worker died after becoming pinned by machinery he was operating. Federal workplace safety officials are investigating. Beth Sutton, a Peabody spokeswoman, said Wednesday the mine's closure, probably sometime early next year, wasn't based solely on that deadly accident.

"The loss of a fellow worker is a loss to all of us and can never be acceptable," she said. But "the decision (to close Willow Lake) is based on a number of performance issues, with safety among them."

Peabody, the world's biggest private-sector coal company, said the Willow Lake site last year sold 2.2 million tons of coal, a sliver of the 250.6 million tons the company took to market in 2011.

News of the mine's pending demise in Saline County, where unemployment of 8.6 percent last month was slightly above the state average, came just weeks after Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. said it would give pink slips to 54 workers at its mine near Galatia, Ill., just 17 miles from the Peabody one.

Murray offered a far different reason for its move that also includes layoffs of more than 100 workers in Utah, blaming newly re-elected President Barack Obama for what it called a "war on coal." The company at that time refused an interview request, saying only that "unfortunately, we will be forced to make even more layoffs, none of which we want."

Murray, insisting the coal industry "is being destroyed," said U.S. coal production this year could plunge by hundreds of millions of tons, and that the Obama administration's energy policies will lead to the closure of scores of U.S. coal-fired power plants by 2014.

Both moves were a double whammy to Saline County and the region, given that many of the affected workers commute to their jobs from neighboring Indiana and Kentucky, as well as from nearby counties. And the looming job cuts appear certain to further test the resilience of Harrisburg, the county's seat that in February of last year was hit by a tornado blamed in eight deaths.

Never mind that the pink slips are coming during the holiday season, Saline County Board Chairman Jay Williams said.

"Cutting 400 some-odd jobs in southern Illinois when we're hurting for jobs anyway? We need all the jobs we can get, and this is just like pulling the rug out from under us," he said. "It's sad, but it's sadder it's happening at Christmas. That's heartbreaking — definitely a big blow."

"If I could fix it, I'd love to," he added. "But the big boys pulled the string, and I have no control over it whatsoever. It's going to be hard, but we have a way of picking ourselves up and moving on. We've had things like this before."

U.S. coal companies have struggled mightily for months, partly because many utilities had switched from coal to cheaper natural gas for electricity generation, pushing up coal stockpiles at power plants and forcing mining companies to sharply cut production. A recent rebound in natural gas prices has buoyed hopes among coal producers that power plants increasingly will shift back to coal, though they say pressure on the industry could persist well into next year.

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