Coal miners at Willow Lake Mine and their families are awaiting the next step in an uncertain future since Peabody Energy announced the mine's permanent closure Tuesday afternoon.
The employees will be attending a 1 p.m. Thursday meeting at their United Mine Workers of American local union hall in Harrisburg where they expect to hear from their union representatives and local politicians.
"The mine has failed to meet acceptable standards for safety, compliance and operating performance, and these ongoing issues make the operations unsustainable," reads the news release from the Peabody Energy Web site.
Kevin Hawkins has operated ram car at the mine for a year and a half. He had worked in the restaurant industry as employee and co-owner until he opted for a job making good money for a regular shift. He fills his ram car with coal from the continuous miner and drives it to the feeder. He dumps the load into the feeder which chops it up and puts it on the conveyor belts to take topside.
He hopes he can get his job back, but is not spending time sitting with fingers crossed.
"I started updating my resume and I'll be out and about tomorrow," Hawkins said.
He has been getting phone calls from friends on job leads.
"Preferably something with benefits and steady work," he said.
Hawkins said prior to the closure notice the mood among the miners was fairly optimistic after a rough few months. There had been belt problems, a rock fall and equipment problems. He said the miners had not been meeting their daily production numbers because the equipment kept failing.
"Our last month, though, things were kind of turning a little bit better," Hawkins said.
And then tragedy struck in the early morning Nov. 17 when miner Chad Meyers, 30, Goreville, was killed while operating the continuous miner. Using a remote control Meyers backed the continuous miner machine into a crosscut, pinning himself between a crosscut rib and the left side of the machine's cutter head, according to a preliminary accident report of the Mine Safety Health Administration.
Meyer's was the second fatality at the mine in two years. In July of 2010 Production Supervisor Thomas N. Brown, 61, was killed by a ram car striking him and running him over.
The day Meyers was killed MSHA issued a K Order meaning the mine is closed pending investigation. Only a few — the mechanic and examiners — were allowed on the site.
The men waited for instructions to return.
"I got a call Monday evening," Hawkins said.
The miners were told there was an informational meeting 1 p.m. Tuesday.
"That's how we found out. At one o'clock were told the doom and gloom of it all," Hawkins said.
"They said we would receive a letter."
On Wednesday Hawkins was awaiting a "W" letter that would explain his benefits.
Hawkins said he understands he should expect 60 days severance pay and 60 days of continued health insurance coverage, but that should all be explained in the letter.
The news caught union representatives off guard as well.
United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said "We were in negotiations for a full contract and we thought we were close to an agreement. There had been some labor management issues, but we thought they were resolved."
The mine employs about 460 people. The workers at the mine's preparation plant should continue to work.
"We are still negotiating a contract for the preparation plant which processes coal from the surface mine across the road. We have no reason to assume we can't reach an agreement," Smith said.
Hawkins and the other miners will be attending the 1 p.m. informational meeting Thursday at the union hall. While everyone hopes for good news, the closure announcement could not have come at a more raw time for the miners.
"We are, obviously, devastated, being so close to Christmas and getting through Thanksgiving. With the death of Chad at work there was a tragedy heading into Thanksgiving and now we're heading into Christmas with the rug pulled out from underneath us," Hawkins said.
Community leaders are doing what they can, but are not optimistic their pleas will sway Peabody Energy.
Saline County Board Chairman Jay Williams said Wednesday that there was nothing the county could do to stop the closure of the Willow Lake coal mine.
"Their minds are made up. I talked to Mary Frontczak, vice-president and general counsel to Peabody Energy Corp. I told her I felt it was our job to help if anything could be done to keep the mine open," he said.
"She said it is much bigger than the county. It is federal and we are not the federal government."
Though the loss of 400 jobs is a major loss to the county, Williams does not anticipate much discussion of it during Thursday's Saline County Board meeting.
"This mine closure is going to impact more than our county. It is going to effect three states," said Williams.
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg said the city is ready to offer what assistance it can.
"We will do everything we can to help turn it around, deal with who we have to deal with moving forward. We will certainly be with the coal miners' families in the days ahead," Gregg said.
Gregg said he would make contact with Peabody to implore the closure not happen, pessimistic a small town mayor's voice would have much impact.
"Anything I can do to turn this around I'm trying to do," Gregg said.
"This is going to have a huge affect across the board and we will do everything we can to be of help in the days ahead."
Gregg feels a responsibility to help the miners after their mine rescue crews donated their efforts to help free people trapped in the Feb. 29 tornado.
"These miners were there the day of the tornado and dove in to help. These guys are heroes," Gregg said.
Gregg said the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is assembling a response team he understands intends to talk to the mine officials at the local level to see what can be done to help displaced workers.
He anticipates job fairs in the future.
"They were there for us and we will be there for them," Gregg said.