There was a time when coal was king in Southern Illinois.

Peabody Energy’s Monday announcement that the Arclar Complex in Saline County faces closure is just the latest indication that the king has abdicated.

The closure will cause 225 miners at Wildcat Hills Mine and the nearby Willow Lake Production Plant, a coal processing facility, to lose their jobs. That is a severe blow to Saline County’s already depressed economy.

The official closing date is Dec. 14.

The mine fact sheet provided by states the mine generated $150 million in direct and indirect income for the region. While it’s impossible to nail down an exact dollar figure coming from the mine, it’s inarguable that the loss of 225 jobs will have a devastating effect on Southern Illinois as a whole.

Company officials blamed the closure on “uneconomic mining conditions.”

As tortured as that turn of phrase might be, it is an overdue admission of reality. Generations of Southern Illinoisans fed their families through their labors in the coal mine. It was hard, dirty, illness-inducing work, but coal miners formed the sturdy backbone of the region. For that, we are forever grateful.

As much as we may hope otherwise, the current reality suggests that will never be the case again.

Despite the heated rhetoric of naysayers, renewable energy sources are gaining an ever-increasing slice of the American energy market. Yet, Southern Illinois seemingly has never completely embraced that reality because, well, we owe so much to our coal mining ancestors.

Now, realize that coal mining will not completely disappear from Southern Illinois in the next generation or two. Executives of local coal companies stated last year that if current coal reserves are mined at the current rate mines can produce coal for at least another 35 to 50 years.

However, the number of men and women employed in the mines will continue to dwindle. The causes for that decrease will be numerous — the amount of energy produced by coal will continue to diminish as solar and wind technology advances, coal mines are becoming more automated, plus it takes fewer miners to produce the same amount of coal and, finally, the cost of producing and burning coal will continue to increase.

Perhaps this latest closure will provide impetus for our state and federal legislators to concentrate their efforts on drawing solar and wind production plants to Southern Illinois, or to work with the local community colleges to initiate training programs for the solar and wind industry.

Southeastern Illinois College, located a stone’s throw from the Arclar Complex, seems perfect for such programs. The school sits atop a hill overlooking farmland and coal mines. The site would be perfect for solar fields and its location seems perfect for windmills.

The time is ripe. The region needs jobs and the future looks bright for wind and solar.

Finally, our hearts are with and men and women who lost their jobs. There are few things more devastating for a human being than to lose your livelihood. That is especially true if you are older than age of 50.

Peabody Energy has stated it will stand by its employees, but coal companies haven’t always made good on those promises.

“The company will work with employees at both operations to try to place those employees who are interested and in good standing in positions at other Peabody operations in the Midwest,” the company said in a letter to employees. “Every effort will be extended to provide information about job opportunities with other Peabody mines.”

This newspaper will keep an eye on that situation.

While those promises are good for individual miners, it doesn’t address the immediate economic loss for Southern Illinois.

The king has no fix for that problem.

The Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale, Sunday

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