According to numbers released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) the coal industry is alive and well in the Illinois Basin.
The basin, which stretches from Illinois into Missouri, Indiana and Western Kentucky was once one the four major coal producing, however, because the coal is high in sulfur content it became less popular after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the fortunes of the basin have changed with the spread of scrubbing technology, which can remove 97 percent of a coal-fired power plant's sulfur dioxide.
As power plants installed scrubbers, coal companies reopened mines over the last decade. The state of Illinois was expected to produce 56 million tons of coal last year, up 70 percent from 2010, according to the EIA.
Peabody Energy Corp. the largest U.S. coal producer, it produces 30 million tons of coal a year in the Illinois Basin, up from 10 million tons five years ago.
Coal production fell 7 percent overall in the U.S. in 2012 but rose 10 percent in the Illinois Basin. Its output is expected to surpass that of Central Appalachia by the end of the decade, according to the EIA.
The basin is near railroads, the Mississippi River and other transportation options, offering opportunities even for startups such as Sunrise Coal LLC. A company that was founded in 2002 and highlighted by the Wall Street Journal as one of the success stories in the region.
Sunrise Coal produces three million tons a year at a mine in Carlisle, IN, and is opening two mines in the Illinois Basin.
When Sunrise built its underground mine in Carlisle in 2005, the company did its own digging. Bids submitted by contractors were around $15 million, but Sunrise did the work for $4.5 million, says company President Brent Bilsland. "We mixed our own concrete. We set arches by hand."
Hallador reported a 2012 profit of $23.8 million on revenue of $141.3 million.
Bilsland says Sunrise's nonunion workers earn an average of $75,000 a year and get health and retirement benefits. Only 6 percent of Illinois Basin miners belong to the United Mine Workers union, compared with 27 percent of workers in West Virginia. The union lost about 20,000 members in the 1990s as mines shut down amid restrictions on sulfur emissions.