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Holiday shutdown unsettles coal mine workers

Jim Suhr, Associated Press

In this Dec. 26, 2013 photo a car cruises past a sign marking the turnoff to the Crown III underground coal mine near Farmersville, Ill. The central Illinois mine ceased operations on Dec. 19, costing nearly 200 workers their jobs after the mine's operators lost its biggest contract with agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. Many of the miners now are weighing what to do next, ranging from options that include retiring to moving elsewhere to find work in another mine in the coal-rich state. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr)

FARMERSVILLE, Ill. (AP) -- Just days before Christmas, Jeremy Jones was out of work — along with nearly 200 of his co-workers at a central Illinois coal mine. The timing was made even worse when they learned that the basic health insurance they expected through next year also was gone.

Operators of the Crown III mine just south of Springfield pulled the plug on the site December 20, making good on their October notice that the closure was unavoidable after the mine lost its biggest customer. But with only a few days' notice, workers got word about their health insurance, especially bad news for one miner who said his wife was undergoing cancer treatment.

As Illinois wrestles an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, one of the nation's highest, the affected know they'll have to scramble to replace jobs that often paid more than $60,000 a year. Crown III was the last mine in Illinois with organized labor, union officials said.

Coal mining workers fear a future of such layoffs due to enhanced federal regulation and environmental pressures that many in the industry derisively cast as a "war on coal." But Crown III's shutdown was based on more local circumstances, underscoring the vulnerability of smaller producers who rely on one big customer — in this case, agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Company, which did not renew a contract.

"It's about as confusing as a tornado, absolutely chaotic," said Jeremy Jones, 36, vice president of the local United Mine Workers of America union, who has a wife and three kids, ages 9 to 12. "It's horrible, especially around the holidays and wintertime."

Many of the miners say they understood the closure's inevitability, given that the plumbing of Crown III's coal, hundreds of feet below the surface, was less-efficient than other, cheaper mining techniques. In a statement to The Associated Press, ADM said it found other Illinois coal "substantially more competitive."

The mine's owner, Springfield Coal Co., didn't return messages seeking comment.

Crown III, straddling Macoupin and Montgomery counties northeast of St. Louis, had produced about a million tons of coal a year, a fraction of the more than 52 million tons the federal Energy Information Administration says came out of Illinois mines in 2013. That statewide total — fifth among states — is roughly 4 million tons more than last year and has risen each of the past four years, from 33.2 million tons in 2010.

That surge is behind the peak of 89 million tons that Illinois mines produced during the heyday of 1918. But it reflects an industry still "on a decent track," even if that output finally may be poised to plateau in 2014, said Bill Hoback of the state's Office of Coal Development.

Crown III's mothballing marks just the latest shutdown and layoffs in central Illinois: The Crown II mine near Virden closed in 2007, and about six dozen workers were laid off last year at a mine near Carlinville.

The impact of the latest closure will be felt across the region.

Joe Tischkau, mayor for 28 years in Farmersville, a 770-resident village along Interstate 55, estimates only a dozen Crown III employees actually lived in the small farming community, which offers a truck stop, a couple of taverns — one doubling as the Silver Dollar restaurant — and a gas station or two. The 70-year-old mayor, a lifelong local, said many workers lived 30 miles away in Springfield or other surrounding communities.

Others, such as Mike Harriss, travelled hours from their homes and rented temporary apartments. Harriss, who lives about 130 miles away in DuQuoin, said the loss of the paycheck will be softened by saving perhaps $1,500 a month in rent for his apartment above a Hillsboro pharmacy and the cost of driving home and back when time permitted. At 60, he said the only plan he has is spending more time with his wife of 41 years, a community college financial aid coordinator.

"I don't have anything lined up, but I'm pretty confident I can find a lower-end job," Harriss said, who had worked at Crown III since 1999.

Jones, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, hopes to land a gig with the state transportation department or something based on his experience rebuilding parts for airplanes.

"If you're in the coal industry, every day is the last day, it seems," he shrugged. "It's just one of those things where you have to buck up and deal with it."