Mental Health, Roofing & Job Training: Illinois ‘Just Transition’ Grants Launch

The first round of funding is helping communities add mental health care services and expand workforce training opportunities

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Southern Illinois can be a mental health care desert, with residents forced to drive hours to seek care for mental health and substance abuse issues. 

But that is changing thanks in part to state funding for a “just transition” from fossil fuels in places where coal plants and coal mines have closed.

The first round of funding under the state’s Energy Transition Community Grant program is helping communities add mental health care services, expand workforce training opportunities, and restore local budgets battered by the decline of fossil fuels. The grants were created by Illinois’s 2021 Climate & Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA).

Coal has deep roots around Randolph County, and like most Illinois coalfield communities it has suffered as coal mining jobs diminished and became non-union, and coal plants closed. Peabody’s local Gateway Mine closed (though its Gateway North is still operating), and Vistra Energy’s Baldwin coal plant has slashed generation and will close entirely by 2025.

“I come from a long family of coal miners — a grandfather who was a mule skinner and a coal miner, my brothers were both coal miners,” said county commissioner Marc Kiehna. “I’m the youngest of three boys, by the time I was out there on the market for jobs, coal mining was kind of on the decline.”

Randolph County is slated to receive $1.6 million that, along with federal Covid relief dollars, will allow it to transform a wing of an underutilized nursing home into a behavioral health center with 16 in-patient beds and space for group therapy and other programming.

“This will really provide some care for an underserved population,” said Kiehna. “We struggle here in the rural area with meth, fentanyl, opioid abuse, all that goes along with that. This gives us an opportunity to try to make families healthier and have a positive impact.”

All Illinois fossil fuel plants must close by 2045, unless they can capture and sequester emissions, under CEJA. And most coal plants will close much sooner, thanks to market forces. Since 2007, 23 coal plants have partially or entirely shut down in Illinois, according to Energy Information Administration data.

CEJA allocates $40 million per year through 2045 to provide grants to communities within 30 miles of coal plants or mines that have closed within the past six years, or are slated to close within six years. (A separate provision addresses nuclear plants.)

State officials recently released a list of more than 50 agencies that will receive the grants, provided they complete a phase two application detailing their spending plans and required stakeholder engagement efforts.

Agencies were urged to apply late last year for the inaugural round of funding, in a process some described as rushed to make sure that communities with already-closed plants and mines could benefit for the maximum number of years. The $40 million was divided among the applicants, with amounts based on estimated impact of coal closures.

“The 2023 grants were a pleasant surprise for many of the eligible entities,” said Prairie Rivers Network energy campaign coordinator Amanda Pankau. “I worked with several school districts who applied thinking they may get the minimum $50,000, and they all ended up with more than $500,000. While it was a welcome surprise, we do want communities to have more time to plan and involve community stakeholders in the future.”

The first round of grants went to school districts, park districts, and city and county governments in many of the state’s best-known coal mining communities: Harrisburg, Carbondale, Marion, Mount Olive, Galatia, Hillsboro. John A. Logan Community College in the heart of coal country got a grant, as did the Lake of Egypt Fire Protection District.

A $1 million grant went to Waukegan, the northern Illinois city where an NRG coal plant closed last summer, and where residents have long demanded a voice and funding for just transition plans.

Learning in Harrisburg

In decades past in Southern Illinois, Harrisburg Unit 3 schools superintendent Amy Dixon remembers, students “could go off in the mines making more money than we do, and take care of their family.”

But many coal mines closed or reduced their workforces, and now “we need to equip our students with skills they can utilize here in our community,” said Dixon. 

Often that means jobs requiring Career Technical Education (CTE) — in carpentry, contracting and electrical work, including in the burgeoning solar economy. The Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council recently featured Harrisburg High on its Built to Last TV show, and students have gotten work with the trade union.  

“We have more students wanting to take CTE classes, and we also have a workforce that’s needing more electricians and plumbers and carpenters,” said Dixon. “We would love to give more students that skill set. But we have one building where we are trying to teach our welding and automotive and electricity and building trades all together. It is maxed out, we’re needing some more physical space so we can expand our CTE offerings.”

Now the school district can build a new pole-barn-style CTE training center, thanks to a $539,000 Energy Transition Community Grant. The district qualified based on three nearby coal mines that closed between 2017 and 2019: Galatia, Wildcat Hills and New Future. More than 50 people came to community meetings to talk about the plans. 

“This grant will be invaluable in helping us expand opportunities for our students,” said Dixon. “We wouldn’t have the money to do it otherwise. The community partners, the parents, businesses, education partners, students, staff — it’s just an outstanding example of how Harrisburg comes together to support our schools and each other.”

Pankau noted that while coal plants must inform grid operators in advance of plans to close, mines have no such mandate. Mines often ramp staffing down based on coal demand, and rely on contractors, meaning even the federal WARN Act about impending mass layoffs might not apply. 

“Unfortunately, we do not have information or advanced planning when it comes to the future of Illinois’ coal mines,” said Pankau. “We would like to see [the Illinois Department of Natural Resources] work with communities and industry to help plan for upcoming coal mine closures, so that those communities may apply for grants and begin to plan for the anticipated impacts of closure.”

Hope in Havana

Havana, a town on the Illinois River in central Illinois, saw its tax base decimated when the local coal plant closed in 2019, soon after energy company Vistra acquired Dynegy’s Illinois fleet. Grace Mott had just started her job as director of parks and recreation at the time, and within a month her workforce plummeted from 15 to three employees.

“My budget was cut by a full third when [the plant] stopped paying their taxes,” Mott said. “I had to cut everyone except maintenance — the recreation director, all my office staff, because we have 13 parks and nine buildings to take care of. Honestly I didn’t know if we would survive this. I spent the first year cutting costs every single place I could find.”

Mott made it her mission to keep the town’s popular parks running despite the funding drought, and she cobbled together grants for projects like renovating the historic pool and century-old gymnasium. 

“I was so new to the job, and so stubborn, I’ve just been working hard to make it happen,” she said. 

But finding grants for operations — including staff — is extremely difficult, and she found herself having to forego opportunities for new investments since she wouldn’t have the people to run them. That’s changing thanks to a $157,000 Energy Transition Community grant, which will be used to hire more staff.

“If not for the energy transition community grant, I’m still not sure we’d be sustainable in the long run,” Mott said.

The new investment in staff and operations will dovetail with infrastructure projects funded by a separate state grant — putting a roof on the riverside open-air stage that hosts a popular bluegrass festival, installing fitness equipment and launching e-bike rentals in the park, and building three teepees for scouting camps and visitors. Together, the investments will help build Havana’s burgeoning reputation as a tourist destination. The community energy grant can also pay for marketing to visitors.

“I wanted to go somewhere I could make a difference,” said Mott, who moved with her husband from DeKalb, Illinois, where she had started a successful online newspaper. “We’re certainly doing that here in this town — it’s been just wonderful.

Havana’s local school district, meanwhile, is getting a $757,000 energy transition grant, and the city of Havana was awarded $55,000. Schools superintendent Matt Plater said the schools’ grant replaces a similar amount that the district has lost through the coal plant’s taxes, although federal Covid relief funds — which the park district did not receive — helped tide the schools over. 

The energy transition funds will go towards a plan that Plater already had underway to replace the elaborate shingle roof on the town’s middle school, along with roofs on a transportation building and the ballfield restrooms and concession stand.

While just transition efforts often focus on job training for displaced fossil fuel workers, Plater noted that not many locals were actually employed in the coal plant. The tax base and opportunities for the younger generation are the bigger issues for the town, where almost two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Ideally, sure, they’re thinking you could do job training, help employ displaced workers” with just transition funds, Plater said. “But these plants didn’t hire that many people. We didn’t feel a lot of that job impact in our community, it was the tax base, the assessed valuation that impacted us the most.” 

The energy transition grant will allow the district to pay for the roofing overhaul without taking out bonds, as a district would normally do.

“We’re not putting money in anyone’s pockets or giving a job to someone who lost one, but this allows us to do a project without bonds and keep our property taxes low as a result,” Plater said. “We’re not paying interest on a bond 15 years out. It’s a win-win-win for the community.”

Back in Randolph County

When the Baldwin plant was operating at full force, Randolph County received about $2 million a year in taxes from it, Kiehna said. Now they get about $300,000, and that amount will continue declining.

“It affected us in a lot of ways,” Kiehna said. “We probably lost 100 good-paying jobs, and with the tax issues, we’re trying to make sure we have funds to provide public safety, the sheriff, all the things we do. It’s been a struggle. We laid off staff, we’ve cut here and there to make sure we balance our budget.”

County leaders decided the behavioral health center was a priority, and the nursing home where only about one-third of beds were occupied seemed the ideal place to create it. The effort is also funded with federal Covid relief dollars.

“We said to ourselves, ‘What can we do to provide for a long-lasting benefit?’” Kiehna said. “If we can make our families healthier, guess what, our kids will do better in school and have better lives.”

Kiehna is hoping that efforts to develop a four-lane highway connecting St. Louis and Southern Illinois towns and the Shawnee National Forest could also boost tourism and economic opportunity in the region.

“I’d like to have some jobs here for my grandkids, let people live a good life down here. It’s a beautiful area.”

This article was originally published on Energy News Network

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