Mining industry fights downturn in southern Illinois

People working in the coal mining industry know it’s been another tough year, with jobs lost and mines shutting down. Since 2014, Illinois has produced about two million fewer tons of coal and has lost about 1,600 jobs.

But industry leaders in Marion on Wednesday say they’re not giving up, they’re fighting against the trend.

For those with trucks moving coal in and out of the area every day in southern Illinois, it may not seem like coal mining is diminishing. But, Justin Overturf with Knight Hawk Mine says, it’s a problem for people working the mines.

"You don’t want to see any of them lose their jobs. It impacts their family and definitely the area," Overturf say. He works safety for Knight Hawk, but he says coal miners are a close knit community and any loss in the industry is felt throughout the area.

Wednesday’s Coal Mining Institute gathering brings miners together to check out the new equipment and developments, even competing to find out who has the best mine rescue team.

President of the Illinois Coal Association Phil Gonet says they’re working to pull the industry out of its slump.

"We face many challenges. We’ve had a couple of coal mines close temporarily and the layoffs. We’ve lost almost 40 percent of our workforce in the last 18 months," Gonet say. But, he says, they’re fighting to turn that trend around by pushing back against new regulations, garnering support from miners around the country and Illinois lawmakers, as well as using new technology to increase efficiency in the mines.

Different exhibits show how the mining industry is able to do more with less. They can even simulate mining situations for workers before they ever actually go inside the mines. With half as many vendors as last year, though, Overturf says it seems mining is disappearing.

"Oh, it’s tough, especially for younger guys. You know, a guy like myself, I’d like to work another 30 years, hopefully. And I’d like to think I’d be in this industry for 30 years, but with the way things are right now you just never know," he says.  But he says he and other miners will fight to keep coal powering the area for years to come.

The Illinois Coal Association says it’s faring better than the industry nationally, because Illinois’ coal is so easily extracted. They say because of that, they’ll be a major energy producer in the U.S. for years to come.

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