Foresight’s M-Class Mining/Sugar Camp Energy and Mach Mining/Pond Creek longwall mines in Franklin and Williamson counties, respectively, resumed producing coal in early January after being down for a couple of weeks in December, as did the Macoupin Energy/Shay No. 1 continuous miner operation in Macoupin County.
Illinois coal officials said the lengthy December shutdown apparently was an attempt by Foresight to trim stockpiles. Gary Broadbent, assistant general counsel and spokesman for both Foresight and Murray Energy Co., confirmed all of Foresight’s Illinois mines were operating again except for Deer Run, also known as Hillsboro, in Montgomery County. But he did not comment on the reason for the holiday break. Murray Energy, based in St. Clairsville, Ohio, acquired a major ownership stake in Foresight almost a year ago.
As of early February, Foresight had not publicly released projected tonnage figures for 2016. But unless Deer Run reopens soon, they are likely to be less than its nearly 22 million tons of output in 2014. Mach Mining, Shay and Deer Run produced about 9.5 million tons in 2015, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Deer Run’s 1.9 million tons were significantly below its 5.5 million-ton total in 2014. Final 2015 numbers for Sugar Camp were not yet available. The mine turned out about 9 million tons in 2014.
Complicating the public uncertainty over Deer Run has been the relative dearth of information released by the company about the mine. Except for an occasional snippet of information volunteered by Foresight, MSHA and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources have provided most of the regular updates surrounding Deer Run.
Foresight, for instance, has been hesitant to refer to the probable cause of the prolonged elevated CO levels as a mine fire, though state and federal officials have indicated a stubborn fire or “hotspot” in a mined-out area behind the longwall is the most likely culprit.
In early January, Murray Energy confirmed about 100 Deer Run miners had been laid off indefinitely. The mine had about 104 employees in the fourth quarter of 2015, MSHA figures show, down from about 124 in early 2015.
MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said her agency had approved a request by Foresight to pump water into Deer Run’s shaft “to seal the shaft. “The water will act as a seal so that when they remove the fan housing from the top of the shaft, the inert atmosphere (nitrogen) will not escape.”
Despite Deer Run’s CO woes, Foresight is proposing a 7,731-acre expansion of the mine, according to state regulators. The expansion would be in a different area of the mine not affected by the elevated CO levels.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), meanwhile, has extended an emergency underground injection control well permit to Sugar Camp Energy through December 31, 2016. The emergency permit, issued on May 20, 2014, was to have expired on May 20, 2015, but was extended the first time through December 31, 2015.
IEPA said it initially granted the permit “to allow the applicants to construct and eventually operate two UIC wells on a temporary basis in an effort to manage an unexpectedly large volume of groundwater infiltrating the mine, putting miners at risk. If discharged to surface waters, this wastewater would violate the state’s water quality standards for chloride and dissolved solids.”
Foresight also was facing an early February deadline to reach a negotiated settlement with its creditors to restructure more than 75% of its more than $600 million of debt. In December, a Delaware court ruled the Murray Energy transaction triggered an agreement with Foresight’s unsecured bondholders, enabling them to seek early repayment.
It was not immediately clear what impact, if any, Foresight’s failure to reach a satisfactory agreement with the creditors might have on the company’s mining operations.