The death of Chad Wayne Meyers, a 30-year-old continuous miner operator, was the second in just over two years at Willow Lake, which recorded the last two mine fatalities in Illinois. Another miner was killed in July 2010.

Peabody blamed the closing, set to take place in January, on the mine’s rising operating costs, not the fact that the United Mine Workers of America successfully organized Willow Lake earlier this year and was negotiating a labor contract with the company. Southern Illinois politicians, concerned about the loss of 440 full-time jobs in an economically distressed region if Willow Lake closes for good, mounted an 11th-hour effort to find another operator or buyer for the mine and its 25 million tons of reserves.

Big Ridge Inc., a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Peabody, has operated the mine.

State Representative Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Saline County, said he and others were contacting coal companies around the country in hopes of locating a possible replacement for Peabody/Big Ridge. The UMWA, meanwhile, continued to negotiate with Peabody on behalf of nearly 30 hourly workers at the nearby Willow Lake prep plant. Union spokesman Phil Smith said the UMWA was surprised by the closing announcement, claiming the two sides appeared to be nearing a final labor agreement for Willow Lake miners.

According to an Illinois mining official, Willow Lake’s operating costs were being driven up in part by the increasing distances, and longer time needed for miners to reach the working face.