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Illinois’ clean energy law spells an end to coal. Will miners resist or change?

Workers watch from a safe distance as the main structure of the former Wood River Power Plant in East Alton is brought down by explosives on Feb. 1, 2021.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Workers watch from a safe distance as the main structure of the former Wood River Power Plant in East Alton is brought down by explosives on Feb. 1, 2021. Illinois' new clean energy law requires coal plants aggressively reduce their carbon emissions or face closure.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Bonnie Jamerson has a dual master’s degree in business and human resources, but she still chooses to make a living as a coal miner in Marissa, about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis in Illinois.

The 42-year-old single mother from Benton drives more than an hour up to six days a week to the mine at Prairie State Energy Campus, where she works nine-hour shifts putting in overhead supports to keep the mine from caving in.

She’s never been afraid of hard work, and the regular pay and health insurance allows Jamerson to support her 19-year-old daughter, who has chronic health issues. She has owned her own business and done other work, but coal mining is still the most lucrative and reliable job she’s ever had.

The average annual wage for an underground mine technician such as Jamerson is $80,000 plus benefits and a matching retirement savings plan, said Prairie State spokeswoman Alyssa Harre.

“It provides comfort on the fact that I am going to be guaranteed the work as long as I put forth the effort,” Jamerson said.

Yet Jamerson’s job as a miner could disappear unless Prairie State makes major changes.

Illinois’ new clean energy law includes a 2045 deadline for closing all coal-fired plants unless they meet stringent guidelines and interim goals. It doesn’t outlaw coal mining, but by including $40 million in grants for the social and economic impact of plant and mine closures, the law assumes all coal industry jobs in Illinois will eventually disappear.

Advocates of the law say it’s necessary to stop plants such as Prairie State from polluting the air. The company was by far the heaviest greenhouse gas emitter in Illinois and seventh biggest in the United States in 2020, according to federal data. Forcing massive reductions or complete closure of the facility will help lower a carbon burden that threatens the future of the planet.

While countries such as China and India still burn coal on a massive scale, climate change policies and market forces could eventually force an end to using the combustible black rock for energy.

Coal’s decline in the U.S. has been long and steep. Nationwide, employment averaged 302,000 in 1990 compared to 178,641 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number Illinois mining jobs decreased from 9,875 in 2000 to 6,825 in 2020, state data shows.

Underground mining machine operators in Illinois earned a median $28.30 per hour in 2020, and roof bolters earn nearly $30, according to state data. There were only 33 coal mines left in Illinois in 2020, down from 81 in 1983, according to federal data.

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The new law includes measures for a “just transition” to help fossil fuel workers and their communities move on. Government leaders and focus groups are still defining how those programs will look, said Rev. Mike Atty, executive director of United Congregations of Metro-East, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental justice.

“We know that these are real people who are making their living in these coal mines and coal plants, and so what’s the just way to make sure they are able to adjust to the new economy?” said Atty, who is part of a focus group planning the law’s implementation.

Transition planners hoping to draw people away from coal face stiff competition from the addictive beauty and thrill of mining and fossil fuel industry work, not to mention the pay.

Brendan Brown, a 26-year-old mine worker from Belleville, said he practically writes his own paychecks. When he wants to buy something, he works overtime.

That’s not all that keeps him in the mines in Illinois, Utah, Colorado or wherever his traveling job takes him, despite the risks inherent to the work. There were 83 injuries in Illinois associated with coal mining in 2020, federal data shows. Between 2010 and 2020, there were 11 deaths.

Something happens to people when they work together underground, something to do with the work ethic mining demands, the skill, the family, Brown said. It won’t be easy convincing people to willingly give up the work.

“I tried to get off coal. I can’t,” Brown said. “It’s the brotherhood of family with how it is underground.”

Resistance to change

Despite danger on the job and threat of the trade’s extinction, some miners resist transition.

There’s not much incentive to leave. Miners say the alternatives are bleak, especially in southern Illinois where jobs that pay equally livable wages can be hard to come by, something workforce development specialists challenge.

Jobs with similar or higher hourly wages in Illinois include electricians, industrial technicians, linemen and plumbers. Coal miners often have skills that make them valuable in those trades, said Kathy Lively, CEO of Marion-based workforce development corporation Man-Tra-Con.

“When you’ve got a mining family, a good living, people don’t really want to retrain. They believe they’re coal miners. I’ve heard so many of them say, ‘I’m a miner. That’s all I ever want to be,’” Lively said. “But coal mining includes a whole lot of skills that they don’t usually give themselves credit for.”

Illinois’ new law has plans to develop jobs by creating incentives for renewable energy projects and offering financial support to small businesses that build clean energy infrastructure. Those ambiguous future jobs don’t translate to what supports miners and their families now.

“Where else can I finish a job and have 12 grand in the bank?” said Brown, a father of three.

Brown still has a piece of hammer in his neck from an accident underground. Another time he took drill steel to the face, breaking his nose. He knows men his age who need knee replacements. But he can’t imagine doing anything else except perhaps running heavy equipment or cattle ranching — certainly nothing that would require a diploma.

“It’s just a piece of paper. Why would I do something when I can just learn on my own?” said Brown, a graduate of Belleville East who as of late December was working a mining job in Mount Vernon.

Not everyone is cut out for college or technical education, said Dustin Wathen, a 34-year-old surface operations manager at Prairie State and father of two toddlers. He went to Southern Illinois University Carbondale for a nursing degree, but dropped out after two years. The school work just wasn’t for him.

Wathen started in the coal yard at Prairie State, where the average salary is $85,000, and eventually worked up to management. Wathen will be nearing 50 years old by the time the first emissions requirements hit the plant.

Even if a miner or plant employee is open to new work, it could be a harsh transition for families used to living a certain way.

“I’m not opposed to learning a new skill,” Wathen said, “but I think that’s what a lot of these guys are gonna be like. By the time you’ve established where you live, you’ve probably got a comfortable living, and you want to be able to settle down and enjoy it. The last thing guys want to have to do is to go to learn something for 10 years or to potentially have to work another 15 or 20 years just so they can continue on the way they’ve lived for the last 20 years.”

While miners such as Brown don’t mind traveling for work, employees such as Jamerson at the coal-fired power plant in Marissa worry they’ll have to leave family and friends behind.

Bonnie Jamerson works at the Prairie State Energy Campus.
Bonnie Jamerson works at the Prairie State Energy Campus.

The state’s new law requires Prairie State Energy Campus to be 100% carbon-free by the end of 2045. It sets a goal of 45% emissions reduction by Jan. 1, 2035. If they don’t meet it by the end of that year, Prairie State must retire one or more units or further reduce emissions by 45% by the middle of 2038.

Unless advancements in technology allow Prairie State to meet that goal, the roughly 600 people who work there will have to find new jobs.

“I would definitely have to move, probably out of state,” Jamerson said. “If there was something else that could provide, I probably would have tried that.”

Royce Jackson, a 73-year-old former coal miner who lives in Carbondale, said he understands the resistance.

A trade that has supported generations of southern Illinoisans and is full of nostalgia won’t be easily replaced by training programs, he said.

“You can plan these programs but you also need to instill them in people involved in the mining industry, reach out to them.”

Assistance in Illinois’ clean energy law

Unless fossil fuel workers’ concerns are taken seriously, the law’s transition measures will follow the path of past failed efforts, said Rex Ferrero, a machinist who worked for 23 years at Captain Mine in Perry County.

Here are some of the “just transition” provisions included in the law for those affected by closures:

  • A Clean Jobs Workforce Network Hubs program establishes 13 sites that partner with community organizations to offer support for entering the clean energy sector.
  • Creates the Energy Transition Assistance fund with $180 million per year for clean energy programs. The Department of Commerce and Economic (DCEO) opportunity will be in charge of the money, which can be used to pay for job training and other measures in the law.
  • Establishes the Energy Transition Navigators program to provide education, outreach and recruitment for workforce development programs.
  • Establishes three Climate Work Hubs statewide to recruit for and provide pre-apprenticeship training.
  • Requires DCEO and the Illinois Department of Employment Security to implement a “displaced worker bill of rights” benefiting fossil fuel employees. The law calls on the bill of rights to require advanced notice when a plant or mine will shut down.
  • Requires DCEO to offer a scholarship program to children of plant workers who need financial assistance with paying for higher education.

Ferrero, who retired in 2019 as a machinist for Anheuser-Busch, teaches a few heavy industry classes per semester at Southwestern Illinois College’s Granite City campus, where he sees “a lot of guys displaced because of the steel industry and coal industry.” He says it can be hard for miners to let go of their trade, but even a one- or two-year technical degree can prepare a worker for the potential end to coal in Illinois by showing they’re “trainable, have enough initiative to go through the motions to follow through on a commitment.”

Ferrero was one of the first to leave Captain Mine when he said he saw “the handwriting on the wall” in the 1990s, as the Clean Air Act put more restrictions on coal and emissions. He had skills applicable in other trades, but some of his colleagues weren’t so fortunate.

“There were literally hundreds of people at Captain Mine, and a lot of those guys struggled finding decent work let alone comparable work,” Ferrero said.

Ferrero, a third-generation miner, discouraged his son from going into coal.

“I said, ‘Don’t follow me,’ I said, ‘Go to school,” Ferrero said. “I could see it was the end of an era.”

Avoiding past mistakes

Phasing out coal can’t come soon enough for environmentalists who worked on Illinois new clean energy law. The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act is “the best deal for people who care about the environment,” Atty said.

But Atty said they can’t repeat past mistakes, where promises of new jobs, training and support never materialized.

The 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act in Illinois failed to ensure new clean energy jobs stayed in the state.

“A lot of the jobs and a lot of the money came from companies outside the state,” Atty said, “so it was out-of-state companies that benefited.”

The 2016 law also failed to connect labor unions with contractors, creating a “huge disconnect” between training and jobs, said Virginia Woulfe-Beile, a member of the Piasa Palisades Sierra Club chapter. She advocated for the new law.

“A really important component (of the law) is making this training to jobs pipeline happen,” Woulfe-Beile said. “Ultimately if we go to renewable energies, of course we want to shut the coal mines down. We know these are real people who are making their living in these coal mines and coal plants, so, what’s the just way to make sure they are able to adjust to the new economy?”

Connecting with coal miners

The best way to help coal workers transition is to listen, let them make the final decision about their career and dispel misconceptions, said Lively, the Man-Tra-Con CEO.

One of those misconceptions is that coal work will be around forever. Mines often shut down temporarily and might reopen after six months, and so miners have the mentality that if they just “wait a little while,” their job will come back or another mine will open, Lively said. Or maybe with a new president, coal will come roaring back.

With changing market forces, Lively said, those jobs will continue to dwindle in southern Illinois.

“It’s a lifestyle that really can have a lot of anxiety with it when you’re a coal miner in this region for the last 10 to 15 years,” Lively said.

Ryan Eudy, 34, of Harrisburg, started working in the mines right out of high school. He and some of his coworkers could earn up to $100,000 every year, but he said the future weighed heavy on him.

“It crossed my mind every day. What are you going to do if it just completely shuts down?” Eudy said.

When he was furloughed near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eudy decided it was time to change careers. Lively at Man-Tra-Con helped him enroll in a 15-week lineman training program. He didn’t have to pay for it, and it promised a similar wage to his coal job at the end. He started out making roughly the same, and nearly two years later, he’s now earning $10 more per hour.

Eudy said learning a new trade can be intimidating.

“It’s not that I’m stupid and don’t know nothing, it’s just different. You go from knowing everything about what you’re doing to not knowing anything,” Eudy said. “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed coal mining. But once I made that move, I’m the happiest I’ve been in my life.”

The culture surrounding coal mining also leads to misconceptions about switching careers. Breaking through those barriers is difficult if suggestions of change “come from people you don’t know, especially if it looks like government,” Lively said. That makes it important for local, trusted leaders to help coal workers see possibilities.

“If you try to put yourself in that position, that last year you bought a diamond ring for your wife, you own two Ski-Doos and have a brand new pickup truck, and now you’re working on improving your literacy,” Lively said, “you realize it takes a lot of courage to change direction at any age.”

“We try to put ourselves in their shoes, not tell them what they should do but giving them alternatives and options, and always leaving final decisions up to the person.”

That might mean asking a miner about their family and what they love about their job and then using that information to come up with other options that might fit them.

Contrary to what some miners believe, there are good-paying jobs in southern Illinois, she added, and not just theoretical future clean energy jobs. Historic levels of investment will be made in the region in the coming years.

Linemen, electricians, plumbers and all sorts of blue collar workers will be needed for millions of dollars worth of road and bridge repairs and for the construction of a casino and resort at Walker’s Bluff winery in Carterville.

With three new hangars, Southern Illinois Airport near Carbondale will hire 100 employees within the next year, The Southern Illinoisan reported. The airport will need aviation technicians, and SIU has 1- and 2-year degrees for those jobs, which easily pay $70 an hour, Lively said.

Lineman training is a popular choice for coal workers because it offers the opportunity to learn and get paid during apprenticeships, as well as a similar physicality on the job.

“I just really believe that with some courage and with some trust people really can make big career changes and be very, very happy when a career change happens,” Lively said.

If the state empowers miners and southern Illinoisans to solve their own problems, money from the clean energy law could make a difference.

“Miners have overcome the perception that the people trying to help them think they’re better than they are,” Lively said. “When you’re standing with a team of people often from state agencies, that’s hard.”

Jamerson, the miner from Benton, has concerns about the future, but she isn’t ready to give up yet despite the clock ticking from Illinois’ new law.

“I think everybody that works in the industry has thought about it and how it will affect us, but I’m not too awful concerned because it is a ways off in the future and there’s hope that it can change,” Jamerson said. “But yeah, it is disheartening and worrisome for any of us that provide for our families through this industry.”

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelsey Landis is an Illinois state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.