By Lee Buchsbaum

In early August, Rend Lake College in Ina, Ill., celebrated the culmination of four years of planning by dedicating its new 20,000-square-foot (sq ft) Coal Miner Training Center. The opening ceremonies took place during the Illinois Mining Institute’s (IMI) annual conference and trade show, and an Illinois Mine Rescue Association regional mine rescue competition. A crowd of more than 200 community members, local officials, coal industry leaders and state representatives were on hand for a public open house of the facility. Regional media also focused on the all-day mine rescue contest which drew dozens of teams from Illinois, Indiana, and western Kentucky.

The star of the show, however, was the brand new Coal Miner Training Center. Funding for the new facility came through a U.S. Department of Labor grant totaling $1.7 million and a $1.07 million Illinois Department of Commer-ce and Economic Opportunity grant. The College has since received another DoL grant to buy equipment and recruit students. At the ceremony, officials from the Illinois Office of Coal Development also announced the awarding of another $285,000 grant for Rend Lake College to construct a fire training facility adjacent to the new structure.

A Training Center Returns

Rend Lake College is no stranger to miner training. At one point in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were hundreds of students and 17 mining instructors teaching and taking classes round the clock, three shifts a day, seven days a week. At the time, a quarter of the college’s faculty was dedicated to mine training and the program achieved a 97% job placement rate for its graduates. But with the phasing in of the Clean Air Act Amendments in the 1990s almost all of the area’s mines eventually closed and, with so many displaced miners, few inexperienced workers were needed.

But like many mining regions, a large proportion of southern Illinois’ coal labor force today is nearing or at retirement age. Even with softened market conditions, the industry still can’t fill demand fast enough for new hires. With six new mines projected to open in the area in the next few years, “We simply don’t have enough young people to fill this void. The shortage is also in the management structure where most folks are between 45- to 60-years old. Illinois’ mining resurgence is going to be staffed by a whole new generation of coal miners, and Rend Lake College is positioning itself to be the region’s premier educator,” said Tom Brenner, Peabody Energy, who is also the outgoing president, IMI.

Despite a challenging coal market in many regions, Illinois Basin mines continue to expand, and southern Illinois may become this expansion’s epicenter as Cline, White Oak, Peabody and other producers move forward with their development plans. “Five years ago, through our contacts in the mining industry, we were informed that the need for new miner training was rebounding. We were trying to hire mining instructors, and we found Dave Colombo. We needed someone who was more than a classroom teacher. He had to be a teacher, recruiter and promoter with a strong work ethic and knowledge and history of the mining industry,” said Chris Nielsen, professor of industrial maintenance and a mine training coordinator in the Applied Science and Technology Division at Rend Lake College.

“What this center does is centralize training for the coal mining industry,” said Rend Lake College President Charley Holstein. “It creates a regional approach to all aspects of coal training. Industry, the college and the state agree this is the perfect central location, and with our history and record in coal mining training, we’re excited about the potential here.”

In addition to announcing the opening of the center and the additional grant funding, Holstein also thanked Billy Kirkpatrick of Joy Mining Machinery on behalf of the Rend Lake College Foundation for donating a continuous miner to the new facility.

New Miner Training Program
With 15 full-time students, the miner training program at Rend Lake College is still evolving as it readies itself for the fall semester. While hundreds of students in the past have taken the mandated 40-hour miner training and refresher courses, the college now offers a much more in-depth associates degree in applied sciences devoted solely to mine training. “If you only take the basic 40-hour class, as a new hire, you’re like just one fish in the sea. If you’re looking to distinguish yourself, education is the key. We’re also looking to get already experienced miners to hone their skills while recruiting new miners to learn basic skills,” said Colombo.

This fall Rend Lake College will offer a full slate of courses toward the two-year associate’s degree. Classes include mine atmosphere and strata control, machine operations, mine electrical systems and mine health, safety and rescue. Classes can also lead to occupational certificates in advanced mining, mine electricity, mine mechanics, mine operations and mine supervision.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth in the last four or five years, particularly last year,” said Brenner. “There’s a tremendous need for new individuals to come into the mining field. It is an industry where people and training are so important. Learning to run dedicated equipment safely and efficiently is vital. If you have places like this that you can hire somebody who has those basics, it’s a tremendous advantage for the producers not to have to conduct that training themselves. Rend Lake has stepped up to fulfill that need.”

Half of the new Miner Training Center facility is taken up by a 10,000-sq-ft mock mine with low roof conditions and moveable walls that realistically recreate the tough underground environment in a safe, manageable training situation. The rest of the building hosts classrooms, a large open area for group assembly, equipment construction, operation and repair, administration offices and other rooms.

For the training program, Rend Lake College has a Joy 14CM9 and a CLA mini-track small scoop on the property. A single-boom roof bolter is scheduled to arrive soon as well as a functioning man trip—all valuable learning tools to be added to the already long list of useful equipment. “We still need a regular mine power center to run that equipment and we need to get a piece of haulage equipment too. Acquiring some longwalling equipment is also on our to-do list. We think that three to five shields and a piece of pan line would be enough to simulate operations. Most Illinois mines are underground, so we’re concentrating on gathering equipment for that segment of our curricula. But it would be helpful
to get some prep plant equipment too,” said Nielsen.

With all of the new facilities, coupled with other programs that have been developed over the years, Rend Lake College is now poised to become one of the premier miner training facilities in the Midwest and the nation. “Between the new training building, [the equipment,] the simulated mine inside the building, the firefighter training facility that will be built right outside the door, we’ll have a lot to offer. A student will also be able to step across the street and enter our applied science building, where they could receive diesel and heavy equipment training. Our welding shop, where students are now training to work for the Prairie State Energy Campus, is also a tiny walk away. The point is it’s all in one location. There probably is not any place where you can find that concentration of all those skills, where you can put your hands on a miner, go across the street learn how to weld, and then go across a hallway to learn how to program a PLC. That’s what we are now able to offer,” said Colombo.

“In the past, we have had to go to West Virginia to get anything similar to what we now have here. This is a world-class facility,” said Joe Angleton, director of the Illinois Office of Mines and Minerals, in his remarks at the center’s opening.

Industry support for Rend Lake College’s growth has been key. Regional start-up White Oak Resources was instrumental in getting Joy Mining to donate the continuous miner, and the Cline Group’s Mach mine has hosted several tours for the college. It has also worked closely with American Coal in Galatia. “You have to get off chalk board and experience mining with your own hands if you want to really understand what this industry is all about,” said Colombo.

Hosting IMI
For the last few years, the annual Illinois Mining Institute conference and trade show had been held in Springfield, but outgoing IMI President Brenner decided that with all the industry growth in southern Illinois and the construction of the new facilities at Rend Lake College, a change of venue was in order. Conference sessions led by Caterpillar and Martin Engineering focused on safety training. Other sessions focused on roof control and other technical issues.

Simultaneous to the IMI’s technical conferences, the college’s gym was used for exhibits. “Our vendors seemed very happy and we had more than ever before. With the college’s facilities, it was so much easier to get in and out. This year we saw a lot more big equipment and big toys out here than we’d had in Springfield,” said Brenner.

“From the very beginning, when we started getting back into coal miner education, the administration has stepped on the gas,” said Nielsen. “When IMI came to us, the administration’s only question was ‘What can we do to help?’”

100 Years of Mine Rescue in Illinois
Marking the 100th anniversary of mine rescue in Illinois, dozens of mine teams from across the region participated in an all day mine rescue contest. Despite the heat and summer humidity, rescue teams donned heavy apparatus and “worked” their disaster scenarios.

Most of the teams were from large regional miners such as Peabody and Alliance and most of these teams had successfully participated in previous contests. New to this one, however, was a team fielded by the Kentucky Coal Academy and made up by several independent underground western Kentucky operators including Advent and Armstrong Coal.

Illinois regional producer Knight Hawk also participated for the first time. “It was a great experience for us. Overall, we performed very well. We came out of the contest grateful not only that our team exists but that our industry has so many trained and dedicated individuals who would risk their lives to help us if the call came out. We may be competitors off the field, but on the field, we’re all in this together,” said Jim Smith, vice president-administration, Knight Hawk.

At the evening gala ball, the IMI pronounced the Rescue Rhinos from Alliance’s Gibson County Coal Mine winners of the Illinois Mine Rescue Association’s 2009 state mine rescue contest. Their 33-minute disaster scenario solution time was six minutes faster than the second-place Kentucky Coal Academy team, which was comprised of a mixture of western Kentucky miners. No stranger to the limelight, Gibson County Coal Mine Trainer Rod Dilbeck, team captain Terry Phegley and briefing officer Bruce Thompson had previously won state mine rescue championships in 1991 and 1993 while working for Foundation Coal’s now closed Wabash mine, and later as an Indiana State team in 2000. The 2009 victory was their first IMRA championship with the Princeton, Ind.-based Gibson County Rescue Rhinos.

Buchsbaum is a Denver-based freelance writer and photographer specializing in industrial subjects. He can be reached through his Web site at www.lmbphotography.com or by phone at 303-746-8172.