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.