Bill Hoback

BILL Hoback reflects on the 20 years he spent underground before taking on his current role of leading Illinois’ coal development efforts in 2002. Hoback’s tenure as head of the Illinois Office of Coal Development (IOCD) has been marked by stepped-up efforts to develop the latest super-clean technology, including integrated gasification-combined cycle (IGCC), to extract energy from the state’s rich coal resources.
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Bill Hoback, head - Illinois Coal Development Office

Staff Reporter

Hoback has headed Illinois' coal development program during a time in which several major initiatives have been launched under governor Rod Blagojevich. Prior to taking over coal development at IOCD, Hoback served for several years as Illinois coal industry liaison for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), District 12. His responsibilities included coal education programs, government relations, and employment and training issues. He first went to work for the UMWA in 1996 in the union’s Washington DC legislative office.

A native of Carlinville, Hoback attended Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville before going to work in 1978 at the Monterey Coal Company No. 2 mine at Albers. Hoback has been a continuous miner operator, slope bottom man, mine examiner, and, later in his career, longwall operator at Monterey’s No. 1 mine near Carlinville.

Illinois has invested more than $US50 million in IGCC and other state-of-the technologies in recent years. Governor Blagojevich recently created a $US300 million funding pool from which reduced-cost financing couldbe provided to developers of clean-coal energy projects.

As head of the IOCD, Hoback has been a key participant in Illinois’ efforts to become the site of the US Department of Energy’s $US1 billion FutureGen project. He has also worked with other midwest states, the Illinois EPA and the Illinois Attorney General's office to ensure proposed new mercury reduction rulings fromthe Federal EPA are implemented in a fuel-neutral and effective manner.

ILN:What is your earliest mining memory?

BH: As a youth, riding my bike past the rusting headframe at the old Carlinville South Mine. As a miner, inserting rib bolts and using a torque wrench to hand tighten them up.

ILN: What made you choose mining as a career?

BH: The timing and interest in a new occupation. I really thought I would work in the mines for three years and then go do something else. After 20 years underground, I survived two lay-offs, and then enjoyed five years working for the United Mine Workers of America. I am now going into my third year as bureau chief of the Illinois Office of Coal Development.

ILN: What was your favourite job in a coal mine?

BH: I enjoyed running the continuous miner. I had some good partners and enjoyed working with them. At the end of the day, you knew if you had a good shift.

ILN: What was your least favourite job?

BH: I was not real fond of shovelling the beltline.

ILN: Who, or what, has most influenced your mining career?

BH: My brother-in-law, John Howard. He had been an underground miner and has always given me good advice.

ILN: What do you see as being the greatest mining development during your career?

BH: A more serious attitude towards personal safety in the mines. That needs consistent reinforcement from management.

ILN: What was your most embarrassing moment in a coal mine?

BH: The president of the Bituminous Coal Operators of America came onto the section where I was running a miner. He watched me cut a few buggies, and then asked to see my partner run some coal. She got on the machine and loudly pointed out I had left coal bottoms, which she would need to cut out first.

ILN: What was your scariest time in a coal mine?

BH: An old friend and long-time miner operator partner had bid off the miner for maintenance training. On his last cut of the day and his last day as a miner operator, a huge rock broke up and fell, covering up the miner. The rock caused the continuous miner to kick power. My heart seemed to stop as I ran up towards the machine. Suddenly I heard a loud ya-hoooo! coming from somewhere under the covered cab. I knew that Dave was all right and this day would have a happy ending. At the end of the shift, I bought the beer.

ILN: What is your worst memory of coal mining?

BH: I am guessing the answer to this question is the same for many miners. The reaction when you find out that someone was seriously hurt and they were trying to get them out of the mine. And then, after a fatality, going home, looking at your wife and children and trying to decide if you should go back into the mine.

ILN: What major improvements would you like to see on longwall operations?

BH: The quality of the systems to keep improving and the cost of the systems going down.

ILN: Where do you see the Illinois coal industry in the next ten years?

BH: I see more coal mines opening along with more customers who can use bituminous coal coming to the Illinois basin. The governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, understands if you bring customers for coal the mines will open. Illinois has put a major amount of financial resources into bringing coal gasification on-line in America. We are co-funding, along with our private/public partner, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's Clean Coal Review Board, the detailed engineering cost for two coal gasification projects in Illinois.

ILN: How do you rate the state’s chances of being the site for the FutureGen project?

BH: I rate our chances as high. We have done a lot of preparation work for siting the federal project in Illinois. Governor Blagojevich has supported making FutureGen one of Illinois’ top priorities. Illinois interagency cooperation is putting a lot of information together. The Illinois State Geological Survey, along with Indiana's survey, has done massive research on the carbon sequestration opportunities in the Illinois Basin coal fields. Illinois and Indiana have an advantage in that the three types of sequestration, the Mt Simon sandstone formation, old oil wells and thin deep coal seams, are stacked vertically above each other in a fairly large area. We are currently doing wetlands, endangered species, geologic fault, and historic preservation studies at four sites that have the infrastructure and sequestration conditions for this type of project.

Governor Blagojevich recently signed legislation that will put FutureGen under the Illinois Coal Revival Program, my biggest coal program, with $US3.5 billion in grants, incentives, transmission upgrades, and low interest loans.

ILN: What ongoing role do you see for unions in coal mining?

BH: The major role needing to be played by the union is to keep miners health and safety in the forefront of American politics. Too often in America's past it took major disasters to force rules and regulations that protected the men and women who worked in our mines. Thanks to the United Mine Workers of America, their role supports proactive efforts on the behalf of union, non-union and retired miners.

ILN: What are the major challenges facing the US coal industry today?

BH: Educating the coal burners into becoming comfortable with the chemistry of coal gasification. Also, we must stop thinking of coal as only for generating electricity. There are many other opportunities to increase the value of America's most abundant resource. It is a waste of Btu's when natural gas is used to generate baseload electricity.