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More US coal mines idled as 2 Pa. mine workers test positive for COVID-19

Consol Energy Inc. shut down its Bailey coal mine in Pennsylvania after two mine employees tested positive for COVID-19, and Alliance Resource Partners LP is temporarily ceasing production from its Illinois Basin mines, the companies announced March 30.

Consol said it is curtailing production at Bailey for two weeks to perform a "precautionary deep cleaning of the facilities while attempting to determine if any other employees were at risk from exposure." Alliance said it has been working at reduced levels for the past six weeks to evaluate its customers' needs in the wake of business disruptions related to the virus but is now suspending coal production from its Illinois Basin mines.

Some coal mining continues despite pandemic

Consol's Enlow Fork and Harvey mines, the other two mines that are part of its three-mine Pennsylvania mining complex, will remain open "to ensure a stable energy and electricity supply for all Americans," Consol said. Both employees who tested positive for the coronavirus were asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

"We will continue to monitor the issue closely in order to limit potential exposure to other employees, contractors, family members, and the community," Consol wrote in a March 30 news release.

There have been 122,653 total confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 resulting in 2,112 deaths in the United States as of a March 29 update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Union workers recently asked the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue additional safeguards related to preventing miners' exposure to the virus. The union said workers with black lung disease may be particularly vulnerable. Working underground also presents additional risk to miners who must work in close proximity to one another.

An MSHA representative said in a March 27 email that the agency is "actively working on many fronts to aid the American workforce during the COVID-19 response" but did not specifically respond to whether the government would issue any new safeguards for miners.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

Coal miners in Pennsylvania were initially bracing for a temporary halt to all operations in the state when the governor directed non-life-sustaining businesses to close March 19. The coal sector was not initially included on the list of exempted industries but was later added to the list.

Alliance braces for substantial hit to US coal demand

Alliance said in a March 30 news release that the "unprecedented decision by world leaders to lockdown the global economy to combat the deadly virus has crushed demand for energy."

"The price war initiated by Saudi Arabia and Russia has lowered oil prices even more," Alliance wrote in the update. "All Americans are having to adjust to a way of life none of us could have imagined two months ago."

Alliance scheduled the idling of its Illinois Basin operations to last until April 15, though a return to production could be accelerated or delayed based on the business needs of its customers. Producers in the region were warning that the Illinois Basin was oversupplied before the spread of COVID-19.

Alliance said it is adjusting production at its operations to match its existing sales commitments of approximately 28 million tons for 2020.

The company also said it is taking initiatives to reduce its costs, expenses, working capital and capital expenditures. The company's board of directors suspended the cash distribution to unit holders for the first quarter, and the company withdrew its 2020 operating and financial guidance.

"It is important to note that approximately 75% of our domestic sales are targeted to states that depend on coal, more than any other fuel, to generate electricity," Alliance President and CEO Joseph Craft said in the news release. "As serious as the disruption caused by the virus has been to the citizens of these states, imagine the impact if our miners didn't show up every day to ensure the reliable supply of this essential fuel necessary to keep the lights on."

Alliance said it expects its total sales tons for 2020 to be approximately 25% below its initial expectations. Other coal companies that have said they are idling or stopping their U.S. coal production in response to the virus include Rhino Resource Partners LP, Blackhawk Mining LLC and Coronado Global Resources Inc.