About 100 to 150 Willow Lake Mine workers attended a meeting of their United Mine Workers local union at the SIC Foundation Center Thursday to hear from union and civic leaders on the next steps since Peabody Energy announced the mine’s closure Tuesday.
UMWA officials, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg, Equality Mayor Frank Sisk, representatives of U.S. Representatives John Shimkus and Jerry Costello and black lung claim attorney Roman Kuppart attended the meeting that involved some impassioned speaking that could be heard outside the meeting hall.
UMWA Vice President and Region 3 Director Steve Earle of Madisonville, Ky., said he gave an update to the miners on the company’s ongoing negotiations.
Earle said he informed the miners the union learned of the closing Tuesday by Peabody at at UMWA headquarters in Triangle, Va., news that came as a surprise as the union as the company was engaged in what Earle said were good faith negotiations for a contract. Negotiations are continuing for the 24 to 36 employees at the preparation plant.
“I thought we were really making progress,” Earle said.
“I was cautiously optimistic we were going to work out an agreement they could still prosper and make money under.”
The union knew of safety problems and were making suggestions to Peabody to improve safety. Union inspectors were prepared to address safety issues in the mine and make sure they were fixed before Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors found them and issued fines. The union was recommending management adjustments.
“We were working toward that, but obviously the people at the higher corporate level decided the mine was going to close. The timing could not have been worse,” Earle said.
While some may speculate the announcement of the closing could be posturing during contract negotiations, Earle said this does not appear to be the case. A drain of money due to MSHA fines, operating costs and low productivity is the reality.
Peabody, the world's biggest private-sector coal company, said the Willow Lake site last year sold 2.2 million tons of coal, a sliver of the 250.6 million tons the company took to market in 2011. The company took less coal this year after an investment of $34 million.
“They lost $1.2 million in September alone,” Earle said.
A rock fall halted production, worker’s compensation claims have been up and costs are rising. Then Chad Meyers, 30, Goreville, was killed, pinned Nov. 17 between a continuous miner machine and the wall.
Federal workplace safety officials and one UMWA investigator, Butch Oldham, are investigating. Beth Sutton, a Peabody spokeswoman, said Wednesday the mine's closure, probably sometime early next year, wasn't based solely on that deadly accident.
"The loss of a fellow worker is a loss to all of us and can never be acceptable," she said. But "the decision (to close Willow Lake) is based on a number of performance issues, with safety among them."
Page 2 of 2 - Earle said one safety issue with the mine is a one-hour travel from the mine portal to the working face which leaves opportunity for problems to develop.
“It’s a combination of events leading up to this,” Earle said.
“That mine has had some serious issues for some time. But I was cautiously optimistic we could help them work through some of those problems.”
Willow Lake is not the only mine Peabody has shuttered in the last few months. The company shut down mines in Indiana and Kentucky.
The displaced miners will receive 60 days pay and benefits and Earle said the UMWA will continue to push for more benefits.
“We are certainly going to work toward that goal,” Earle said.
The union was to contact the company today to set a date for further negotiation talks.
Earle said the mine officially close Nov. 27 and a few workers will be kept on to physically close out the mine which is expected to last to Jan. 30, 2013.
“Some employees will work to assist with the final close activities,” Earle said.
News of the mine's pending demise in Saline County, where unemployment of 8.6 percent last month was slightly above the state average, came just weeks after Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. said it would give pink slips to 54 workers at its American Coal mine near Galatia.
Murray offered a far different reason for its move that also includes layoffs of more than 100 workers in Utah, blaming newly re-elected President Barack Obama for what it called a "war on coal."
Murray, insisting the coal industry "is being destroyed," said U.S. coal production this year could plunge by hundreds of millions of tons, and that the Obama administration's energy policies will lead to the closure of scores of U.S. coal-fired power plants by 2014.
U.S. coal companies have struggled mightily for months, partly because many utilities had switched from coal to cheaper natural gas for electricity generation, pushing up coal stockpiles at power plants and forcing mining companies to sharply cut production. A recent rebound in natural gas prices has buoyed hopes among coal producers that power plants increasingly will shift back to coal, though they say pressure on the industry could persist well into next year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.