Some 600 feet beneath the corn and soybean fields of southern Illinois, a passageway barely tall enough to walk through ends in a wall of gleaming black carbon, ready to be ground into chunks and transported to power plants half a world away.
This is a coal mine, and for more than a century caverns like it have fueled the economy of this often-depressed region. Miners risk their bodies in labyrinthine tunnels and on mineral-rich hillsides, and in exchange, they can earn $80,000 or more — wages far beyond anything else available in the area.
But this long-standing covenant could be reaching its end. Illinois mining companies have shed more than 1,200 jobs over the last year as strict new environmental regulations and cheap natural gas have encouraged utilities to drop their reliance on coal. Only about 2,800 jobs remain, the lowest tally in decades.
That downsizing — and the fear that the final blow is coming — has shaken small towns already haunted by empty storefronts and shrinking populations. Coal mining has always been volatile, but some industry veterans say this downturn feels as though it might be permanent.
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“Southern Illinois is not a booming area,” said Denny Maraman, 64, a former miner whose devotion to the job was so deep that he kept working even after receiving a double-lung transplant, only to be laid off two years later. “You take the mining industry away? It’s like cutting the legs off it. And as bad as it is now, it’s going to get worse.”
Coal’s decline has become an issue in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton stirred fear in the mines when she told a town hall in March that the shift to clean, renewable energy means “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
She added that she wants to bring new economic opportunities to coal country, but the damage was done: Donald Trump, who has vowed to “bring those miners back” by scrapping regulations, is seen by some as the industry’s last hope.
“I think (the election) is pivotal,” said Bob Sandidge, owner of a mining services company and founder of an advocacy group called Coal Miner’s Movement. “Hillary said she’s going to carry on with the clean power plan, and that’s going to be the final nail in the coffin.”
Some analysts say coal’s predicament is too far gone for a political fix. Energy producers in the U.S. and overseas are building enormous wind farms and fields of solar panels, while the ocean of natural gas unleashed by fracking has prompted American utilities to shutter hundreds of coal-fired plants.
That has many in the region envisioning a future without mining — and they don’t like what they see.
Michael Tucker, 33, recently learned that he’ll lose his job in November when his employer, the Pattiki Mine in Carmi, Ill., shuts down permanently. He said when mines close, the aftershocks touch many more who indirectly depend on them, from truck drivers and barge captains to restaurant employees and real estate agents.
“The number of jobs that will be lost or negatively affected will be hundreds, thousands,” Tucker said. “That’s what people don’t realize. It’s just enormous what it’ll do to southern Illinois.”
Coal has influenced the destiny of southern Illinois from the moment in 1673 when French explorer Louis Joliet saw veins of the ancient heating fuel embedded in the banks of the Illinois River. That was just a glimpse of the vast Illinois Basin, an underground treasure chest of oil, natural gas and coal that runs beneath most of the state but yields its most abundant riches in the far south.
The basin’s coal is high in sulfur, and it burns hotter and generates electricity more efficiently than coal mined elsewhere. For decades that was a competitive advantage, but sulfur’s role in creating acid rain led to provisions in the Clean Air Act that prompted utilities to install expensive scrubbers or switch to low-sulfur coal.
Demand for Illinois coal plunged, and the state’s output dropped from 61 million tons in 1990 to 33 million a decade later, according to the Illinois Coal Association. Unemployment topped 17 percent in a few counties, and some communities never recovered.
“You drive down the street and your town has disappeared; it just kind of takes the pride away from where you live,” said Mark Motsinger, who teaches high school history in Carrier Mills. The village of 1,600 saw its downtown abandoned after the 1993 closing of the Sahara coal mine.
Some mines rebounded as utilities installed sulfur scrubbers and overseas demand picked up, but growing concern over global warming soon threatened the industry again.
Carbon dioxide is the main culprit scientists blame for global warming, and no one has created an economical way to remove it from power plant exhaust. The Obama administration last year ordered power producers to cut their carbon emissions, one of several recent rules aimed at reducing coal pollution.
Twenty-nine states — though not Illinois — sued the administration over the emissions rule, saying it would ruin the coal industry and lead to higher electricity prices. The U.S. Supreme Court in February blocked the rule by a 5-4 vote, and most believe the justice picked by the next president will determine its fate.
Yet Howard Learner of Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center said regulations aren’t the major reason for coal’s decline.
More relevant, he said, are bad business decisions: Some mining companies went on a buying spree believing that economic growth in China would continue at a breakneck pace, only to go bankrupt when that bet went sour.
At the same time, a glut of natural gas and nuclear power, combined with the increased efficiency of everything from lightbulbs to refrigerators, means the energy market has more supply than demand. Coal simply can’t compete with other sources, Learner said.
“Those are real economic factors that are not likely to be affected by who is president,” he said.
That view is not widely shared in Galatia, where hundreds of workers at its two coal mines have been dismissed over the past year.
“Hillary Clinton gets in, it’s going to change our whole way of life,” said Norman Lindsey, 47, a foreman at the New Era mine, scheduled to close by the end of the year. “It is very important to keep her out. She’s going to continue with the Obama legacy and then some.”
Like many towns in the region, Galatia, population 933, is bound to carbon. A mountainous gray “gob pile” of mining waste looms over its eastern border, and trucks laden with coal rumble along its stoplight-free main drag.
Mayor David Harrawood said the impact of the recent layoffs has yet to hit, possibly because many workers are still drawing unemployment. But the job losses and concerns the town’s retired miners have about the stability of their pensions have put the community on edge, he said.
“When you get in this area, every family is connected somehow,” he said. “It isn’t just coal _ it’s the trucking industry that hauls all this coal. We’ve had 100 trucks run out of this coal mine when everything was doing good. That affects your fuel people, your tire people, your parts people. It’s a domino effect.”
Mark Davis of Galatia First Baptist, a church where half the families depend on mining jobs, said he sensed “a feeling of anxiety and nervousness” in town. But others, from small business owners to Galatia High School shop teacher Tim Arnold, were more optimistic.
Arnold said his former students have been able to get work as welders or mechanics, their prospects buoyed by the steadiness of the agriculture industry.
“There’s always going to be a need for (those skills),” he said as his students disassembled a tractor engine. “I’ve seen ‘em come, I’ve seen ‘em go, but there’s still employment.”
The quality of that employment is another matter. Pamela Barbee of the Southern 14 Local Workforce Investment Board, a federally funded job training program, said miners who go into other industries often see their pay slashed.
“Coal mining is very hazardous, therefore it’s pretty lucrative,” she said. “Most coal miners (who take new jobs) have to change their lifestyle.”
That certainly has been true for Greg Westfall, 62, who was laid off in January from Peabody Energy’s Cottage Grove strip mine in nearby Equality. He said he went from making $65,000 a year to barely $3,000 as a nomadic heavy equipment operator.
“I don’t have the future I used to have,” he said. “It concerns me. I could retire, but it’s not going to amount to much. I’m trying to work and keep things going, but it’s not like it was working for Peabody.”
While Trump has pledged to revitalize the industry, he has released few details on how he would do that (his campaign did not respond to a request for specifics). Clinton, meanwhile, has focused on a post-coal future, saying her administration would spend $30 billion on new infrastructure, job training and land reclamation in areas that lose mining jobs.
Robert Murray, a Trump supporter whose Ohio-based company Murray Energy owns the Galatia mines, scoffs at that vision.
“(Miners) don’t want Hillary Clinton’s welfare,” he said. “These people want jobs. They want to work.”
But Mayor Dale Fowler of Harrisburg, the largest town in coal-rich Saline County, isn’t waiting for the mines’ revival. He said he has lured businesses such as an assisted-living center and a movie theater to his city, and though the wages they offer don’t compare with a miner’s pay, he hopes manufacturing plants will also join the migration.
“We’re still inching forward,” he said. “It’s not like companies and businesses are giving up on us because we’re losing our coal mining jobs.”
Others aim to bring tourists to the area — a former strip mine has been given new life as the pastoral Sahara Woods State Fish and Wildlife Area — or find new uses for coal.
Tomasz Wiltowski of the Coal Extraction and Utilization Research Center at Southern Illinois University said he is examining ways to recycle the carbon generated by coal-burning plants into vehicle fuel or other useful chemicals. If he’s successful, he said, the entire region could benefit.
“When I find another use for coal that is environmentally acceptable, then mining will (survive),” he said. “Right now, coal goes only to power plants to produce electricity. We need another application.”
Some ex-miners, though, are moving on. Ferrell Jones, 25, who spent five years in the mines before getting laid off earlier this year, is taking advantage of a federal retraining program that is paying for him to enroll in nursing classes at Southeastern Illinois College in his hometown of Harrisburg.
He said it’s hard for some of his former colleagues to break with the industry, and not just because of the pay: Working in the mines is a family tradition for many people, and the job’s camaraderie is difficult to find elsewhere. But if coal’s decline continues, he said, the region’s workers will have to adapt.
“We’re perseverant,” he said. “We don’t just give up quickly and quietly. Do I know what we’re going to do yet? Not really, but I’m sure (other former miners) will find something like I did.”