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‘We all have families’: Hundreds could lose jobs as Illinois lawmakers look to close coal plants by 2035

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MARISSA, Ill. – State lawmakers are still trying to work out a deal to pass a clean energy plan this year.

The Pritzker administration hopes to close all coal plants in the state by 2035. While environmental groups based in Chicago and advocates see this as a win, it could drastically change power for many communities.

A large group of lawmakers say they won’t vote for an energy bill unless it closes coal plants by 2035. However, two of those plants were commissioned less than 15 years ago.

The Capitol Bureau spoke with employees at the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa to see their perspectives on the monumental proposal. Prairie State provides power to 2.5 million customers across eight states. 650 full-time employees and roughly 1,000 tradesmen and women call this a career. They don’t want it taken away too soon.

“We all have families. We want to leave a better world for our kids,” said Control Room Operator Matthew Roberts. “But, we also want to have a secure future and everybody uses electricity every single day.”

Roberts says taking away a large chunk of the electric grid could lead to many people without power, similar to blackouts in California and the disaster Texas faced last winter. Many like Roberts feel environmentalists pushing the bill don’t care about the impact this could have on the workers.

“We’re all a fairly young workforce,” Roberts explained. “We came here expecting to be able to retire from this career and not have to worry about our futures.”

‘We all have families’: Hundreds could lose jobs as Illinois lawmakers look to close coal plants by 2035

Keeping coal in the mix with renewable resources

Employees we spoke with understand the need for more renewable resources in the mix to help the environment. Staff also say Prairie State can mitigate most of the problems that plagued fossil fuel plants in the past. Lead Chemist Kyle Wolfe notes the desulfurization unit pulls nearly all of the sulfur out of the air preventing acid rain. And Wolfe explained the facility is already looking into carbon capture technology to help stop the outflow of carbon dioxide.

“We have to maintain reliable baseload power because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine,” Wolfe said. “So that’s where large baseload plants, like us and some others, come into play.”

Wolfe stressed that coal must be part of the fabric for energy options.

‘We all have families’: Hundreds could lose jobs as Illinois lawmakers look to close coal plants by 2035

This plant also helped create new opportunities for many, like Bonnie Jamerson who works in the coal mines. Jamerson is coming up on two years at the plant and loves what she does.

“Being a single mother of a daughter who has chronic illnesses and health issues, it’s just good to have the security of knowing that this job is going to be here,” Jamerson said.

Nervous and wanting a long-term plan, Bonnie says she would likely have to move to a nearby state to work in another mine if lawmakers passed this plan. Her colleague Grady Dunihoo, a maintenance tech in the mines, takes the negative statements about the plant personally.

“They see all the negative of we’re polluting the air or we’re doing this. They don’t see the actual real side of it,” Dunihoo said. “Like they think they know it, but they really don’t until they actually come and see what we actually do.”

Getting rid of coal or importing from other states

Employees also say Illinois will need to import coal from other states because renewable options won’t create nearly enough energy.

“We can’t put all of our eggs in one basket,” said Alyssa Harre, Vice President of External Affairs. “We have to be thoughtful about the transition. That transition might look different for Southern Illinois than it does for Northern Illinois because of the baseload energy sources that are available.”

Several energy proposals introduced earlier this year would save the energy jobs in Southern Illinois and secure a stronger safety net for downstate communities. However, those plans never moved out of committee. Now, most employees want lawmakers to spend more time thinking about the consequences before they vote on energy legislation.

“We can certainly protect the nuclear jobs in Northern Illinois, protect the jobs here in Southern Illinois while at the same time increase the investment in solar and wind. I think there’s a misconception that it has to be either-or,” Harre said. “It really doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to kill one industry for another to be productive and successful.”

‘We all have families’: Hundreds could lose jobs as Illinois lawmakers look to close coal plants by 2035

While they admit Prairie State is one of the largest polluters in the state, workers hate to hear environmental groups bashing their livelihood.

“We’re trying to do the best we can. But we’re just getting flooded too quick, too fast on different regulations,” Dunihoo said. “They really want to shut us down, so they’re going to try everything they can. And we keep fighting back. So it’s going to be hard.”

Grady says he works with a lot of great people that put hours in every day to support their families. A memo lawmakers and stakeholders received about the energy plan explained those impacted by plant closures would be covered under a displaced worker bill of rights. The Pritzker administration explained the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and Department of Employment Security would administer that support for employees.

‘We all have families’: Hundreds could lose jobs as Illinois lawmakers look to close coal plants by 2035

“We’re actually people”

The plan also included an exemption for Prairie State and the CWLP coal plant in Springfield. Lawmakers would allow both plants to stay open until 2045 if they reach 90% carbon capture by 2035.

Several lawmakers have visited the plant to learn more about the process and speak with workers. However, employees want to meet more of the leaders trying to close their plant too soon.

“Nobody likes to have decisions made by people who aren’t informed,” Wolfe said. “Although it’s a great talking point to say coal is bad, the reality is we have technologies that can solve most of these problems, all of these problems perhaps.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers still don’t know when they’ll come back to Springfield to discuss the plan. Workers hope the governor and legislative leaders use this time to listen and understand how this would impact their lives.

“We need them to see Prairie State as more than just the bad guy,” Jamerson said. “We’re actually people. Most of them are in Chicago. They’re not here to interact or see the impact this will have on us.”

At the same time, sponsors and clean energy advocates hope to create new jobs across the entire state through the energy proposal. They specifically want to help Black and brown families get opportunities to work in the energy industry.

Many minority and low-income communities continue to face more exposure to pollution than white communities. The same issue can be found with jobs in the energy sector. Democrats stress that pollution is a racial justice problem and everyone must be at the table to create the solution for Illinois’ future.