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State Of Trump: Stopping The Bleeding In The Illinois Coal Industry

Bill Meier
A freight training carrying coal heading for Chicago.

Illinois coal mines lost 228 jobs in the last year, according to numbers from the federal agency that tracks mine safety. That’s fewer jobs than were shed in 2016, and production is up by around 11 percent in the state.

The trend is encouraging, said Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association. He attributes the shift in part to President Donald Trump’s roll-back of the Clean Power Plan and other environmental regulations during his first year in office.

“We’re not going to back the coal production where we were in this country back in 2008,” Gonet said. “[It’s] pretty much stopping the bleeding.”

Ending the “war on coal” was a centerpiece to Trump’s campaign. He promised to bring mining jobs back by loosening air and water protections, many of which were put in place during the Obama administration.

“That will eliminate another terrible, job-killing rule, saving many thousands of American jobs, especially in the mines, which I’ve been promising you,” Trump said last February when he reversed a rule protecting streams from coal ash waste.

Environmental groups, including many in Illinois, have criticized the president for axing the safeguard meant to ensure safe drinking water.

But Gonet said the rule was aimed at protecting streams in Appalachia from waste from mountaintop coal mining, which Illinois doesn’t have. He said the rule would have prevented any new mines from opening in the state.

Challenges remain for coal producers, including competition from lower-priced natural gas and some renewables, as well as more efficient mining techniques that reduce the number of jobs needed to run a mine. But with friendlier policies coming out of the White House, Gonet says Illinois’ coal industry will hold steady in the next year.

“I don’t see us building any new, coal power plants. I just see us maintaining the fleet we have,” Gonet said.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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