GALATIA, Ill. – Some 600 feet beneath the corn and soybean fields of southern Illinois, a passageway barely tall enough to walk through ends in a wall of gleaming black carbon, ready to be ground into chunks and transported to power plants half a world away.
This is a coal mine, and for more than a century caverns like it have fueled the economy of this often-depressed region. Miners risk their bodies in labyrinthine tunnels and on mineral-rich hillsides, and in exchange, they can earn $80,000 or more – wages far beyond anything else available in the area.
But this long-standing covenant could be reaching its end. Illinois mining companies have shed more than 1,200 jobs over the last year as strict new environmental regulations and cheap natural gas have encouraged utilities to drop their reliance on coal. Only about 2,800 jobs remain, the lowest tally in decades.
That downsizing – and the fear that the final blow is coming – has shaken small towns already haunted by empty storefronts and shrinking populations. Coal mining has always been volatile, but some industry veterans say this downturn feels as though it might be permanent.
“Southern Illinois is not a booming area,” said Denny Maraman, 64, a former miner whose devotion to the job was so deep that he kept working even after receiving a double-lung transplant, only to be laid off two years later. “You take the mining industry away? It’s like cutting the legs off it. And as bad as it is now, it’s going to get worse.”
Coal’s decline has become an issue in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton stirred fear in the mines when she told a town hall in March that the shift to clean, renewable energy means “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
She added that she wants to bring new economic opportunities to coal country, but the damage was done: Donald Trump, who has vowed to “bring those miners back” by scrapping regulations, is seen by some as the industry’s last hope.
“I think (the election) is pivotal,” said Bob Sandidge, owner of a mining services company and founder of an advocacy group called Coal Miner’s Movement. “Hillary said she’s going to carry on with the clean power plan, and that’s going to be the final nail in the coffin.”
Some analysts say coal’s predicament is too far gone for a political fix. Energy producers in the U.S. and overseas are building enormous wind farms and fields of solar panels, while the ocean of natural gas unleashed by fracking has prompted American utilities to shutter hundreds of coal-fired plants.
Coal has influenced the destiny of southern Illinois from the moment in 1673 when French explorer Louis Joliet saw veins of the ancient heating fuel embedded in the banks of the Illinois River. That was just a glimpse of the vast Illinois Basin, an underground treasure chest of oil, natural gas and coal that runs beneath most of the state but yields its most abundant riches in the far south.
The basin’s coal is high in sulfur, and it burns hotter and generates electricity more efficiently than coal mined elsewhere. For decades that was a competitive advantage, but sulfur’s role in creating acid rain led to provisions in the Clean Air Act that prompted utilities to install expensive scrubbers or switch to low-sulfur coal.
Demand for Illinois coal plunged, and the state’s output dropped from 61 million tons in 1990 to 33 million a decade later, according to the Illinois Coal Association. Unemployment topped 17 percent in a few counties, and some communities never recovered.
Carbon dioxide is the main culprit scientists blame for global warming, and no one has created an economical way to remove it from power plant exhaust. The Obama administration last year ordered power producers to cut their carbon emissions, one of several recent rules aimed at reducing coal pollution.
Twenty-nine states – though not Illinois – sued the administration over the emissions rule, saying it would ruin the coal industry and lead to higher electricity prices. The U.S. Supreme Court in February blocked the rule by a 5-4 vote, and most believe the justice picked by the next president will determine its fate.
Yet Howard Learner of Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center said regulations aren’t the major reason for coal’s decline.
More relevant, he said, are bad business decisions: Some mining companies went on a buying spree believing that economic growth in China would continue at a breakneck pace, only to go bankrupt when that bet went sour.
At the same time, a glut of natural gas and nuclear power, combined with the increased efficiency of everything from lightbulbs to refrigerators, means the energy market has more supply than demand. Coal simply can’t compete with other sources, Learner said.
“Those are real economic factors that are not likely to be affected by who is president,” he said.
That view is not widely shared in Galatia, where hundreds of workers at its two coal mines have been dismissed over the past year.
“Hillary Clinton gets in, it’s going to change our whole way of life,” said Norman Lindsey, 47, a foreman at the New Era mine, scheduled to close by the end of the year. “It is very important to keep her out. She’s going to continue with the Obama legacy and then some.”
Like many towns in the region, Galatia, population 933, is bound to carbon. A mountainous gray “gob pile” of mining waste looms over its eastern border, and trucks laden with coal rumble along its stoplight-free main drag.
Mayor David Harrawood said the impact of the recent layoffs has yet to hit, possibly because many workers are still drawing unemployment. But the job losses and concerns the town’s retired miners have about the stability of their pensions have put the community on edge, he said.
“When you get in this area, every family is connected somehow,” he said. “It isn’t just coal – it’s the trucking industry that hauls all this coal. We’ve had 100 trucks run out of this coal mine when everything was doing good. That affects your fuel people, your tire people, your parts people. It’s a domino effect.”