Is Illinois coal industry poised for a comeback? After two decades of plunging and then stagnating coal production, the Illinois coal industry believes it can see some light at the end of the mine shaft.
“The prospects are better than any time since 1970,” says Joe Angleton, who has viewed the declining coal industry as a member and officer of the United Mine Workers of America and, most recently, as director of the office of mines and minerals in the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
“In five years, we could see 65 million to 70 million tons a year,” says Angleton. That would exceed the annual production in the 1970s and 1980s. This year, Angleton expects 33 million tons.
Illinois’ coal industry fell fast after a federal clean-air law was enacted in 1990, a year when Illinois mines produced 61.7 million tons. During the 1970s and 1980s, the state usually produced with a range of the low- to mid-60 million tons. Then, came a sharp decline to 49.5 million tons in 1995 and 31.9 million tons in 2005.
The number of mines has also dropped, as has mine employment. There were 3,401 mine workers last year, down from about 10,000 in 1990 and just under 20,000 in 1980. The problem with Illinois coal is too much sulfur. Coal users, especially utilities, responded by purchasing coal elsewhere rather than absorb the costs of reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide.
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