“We’re kind of in a consistent mode and hope to stay there,” Carter said in January. The family-owned company traces its roots to 1998 when a crew of 17 people turned a fallow southern Illinois crop field into a coal mine. In the interim, the fledgling company partnered with the much larger, St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc. in 2006. Initially, Arch acquired a one-third interest in Knight Hawk, eventually increasing its stake to 49%.

Carter believes his company mined a little more than 4.8 million tons last year from its five surface and underground operations, although annual tonnage figures are not yet official. He has high hopes for 2015 as well. “We’ve got all our coal sold for 2015,” he said, “a slight volume increase (though) pricing is about the same.” Total output is expected to surpass 5 million tons for the first time this year, in part because of the new American Eagle portal being built about five miles east of the company’s Prairie Eagle portal near Percy in Perry County. Prairie Eagle is Knight Hawk’s largest mine, extracting about 3 million tons in 2014.

Mining should commence at American Eagle by midyear, almost certainly, at least in the third quarter, he said. “We had to amend the permit and add some area, which slowed us down a bit.” Also, “we’ve been battling the weather.”

Later this year, Knight Hawk hopes to be issued a permit for its newest mine, the Golden Eagle surface and highwall job near Pinckneyville in Perry County. The company entered into an agreement a couple of years ago with the state of Illinois to use part of the 19,701-acre Pyramid State Park as a staging area to mine 240 acres of private, adjacent land purchased by Knight Hawk.

“It should get going sometime in 2015,” he said. “We’re hoping it will be fairly developed by fall.” Golden Eagle is expected to produce 400,000 to 500,000 tons annually for eight or nine years.

Carter believes Knight Hawk’s Lone Eagle dock on the Mississippi River near Chester, Illinois, gives it an advantage on many ILB competitors. About 80% of the company’s coal is shipped by barge from Lone Eagle, which can load 1,600 tons an hour.

“We’re really the only one on the Mississippi River from the ILB,” he said. And while foreign exports have not been crucial for Knight Hawk, which focuses heavily on the U.S. electric utility market, they could grow in importance in the coming years. Thanks to the dock, “we’ve got as good transportation to the Gulf of Mexico as anybody.”