FirstEnergy to deactivate 2 area power plants

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FirstEnergy Corp. announced Tuesday it plans to deactivate two coal-fired power plants in Washington and Greene counties because of the high cost of bringing them into compliance with Environmental Protection Agency standards.


Mitchell Power Station in Union Township, Washington County, and Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station near Carmichaels, Greene County, are scheduled to close Oct. 9, resulting in the layoffs of 380 employees – 174 at Hatfield’s Ferry, 77 at Mitchell and the remainder in generation-related and support positions.


Eligible employees will get severance packages totaling about $16 million.


“The closures are based on the cost of compliance with current and future environmental regulations as well as the low market price for electricity,” said Stephanie Thornton, spokeswoman for FirstEnergy, the Akron, Ohio-based parent of West Penn Power.


She cited the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which have already been implemented and limit mercury emissions, as well as regulations expected in the next couple of years. Thornton added that prices for electricity have remained low the past few years, and are projected to remain low for the next three years.


The cost for FirstEnergy to comply with the MATS regulations is estimated at $925 million, Thornton said. About 30 percent of those costs, or $278 million, would be required to bring Hatfield’s Ferry and Mitchell into compliance, she said.


The cost of upgrading older, coal-fired plants is high. Mitchell was built in 1949 and Hatfield’s Ferry, in Monongahela Township, opened in 1969. They have a total capacity of 2,080 megawatts, a formidable 10 percent of the company’s generating capacity.


PJM Interconnection, the transmission operator that controls the areas where Hatsfield’s Ferry and Mitchell exist, will review the shutdowns for any reliability impacts.


Larry Spahr hopes that his town, and the immediate vicinity, will remain economically viable. He is a supervisor in Union Township, which will lose tax revenues as the host community of the Mitchell station.


But he is more concerned about the loss of jobs.


“It’s their livelihood,” Spahr said. ”Many of the employees down there are from Monongahela, New Eagle and Charleroi.”


Bob Whalen, president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 102, could not be reached for comment.


Political response was swift and angry Tuesday.


“This is devastating for our region. That’s 380 people who will be without jobs, 380 families that are going to be impacted by this,” said state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson Township.


The closings, she said, could have a “domino effect,” particularly in an area such as Greene County, where coal is integral to the economy.


Snyder said she had sent emails to coal operators in the area Tuesday morning in an attempt to gauge the impact of the closing on their operations.


“We are the heart of the coal industry and I’m very concerned about how this is going to impact our local coal mines and coal mining jobs … the long-term repercussions are still unknown,” she said.


Snyder said it will be her top priority to make sure programs are available to assist the displaced employees and to ensure the closings do not have an impact on the reliability of the electrical grid.


U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, chairman of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, lamented the deactivations while criticizing the Obama administration.


“This is devastating for those families who had good jobs and for the communities they live in,” Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.


“What this also is is this administration saying it is going to ignore any efforts by power companies to invest in cleaner plants and, in fact, punishing power plants for investing huge amounts in cleaning up.


“I spoke to the president and he said he prefers clean coal. But (with this announcement), it’s clear that’s not the way it is.”


The closing of Hatfield’s Ferry will come just 3 1/2 years after FirstEnergy’s predecessor, Allegheny Power, invested $650 million in the plant to install scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide and mercury from the emissions. The scrubbers came online in late 2009.


The scrubbers, however, will not do enough to help the plant meet new emission standards, Thornton said, “It would still need additional investment to comply with regulations.”


Mitchell does not have scrubbers.


Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey was as hot as Murphy over the closure announcement. He said in a news release: “These unemployed Pennsylvanians are unfortunate casualties in the president’s ‘War on Coal,’ which I will continue to fight against in the Senate … coal-fired plants also have gone to impressive lengths to reduce emissions. Nevertheless, the Obama administration continues to implement policies that will make energy more expensive.”


State Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, blistered the EPA over what he considers to be its overregulation of coal, while also criticizing the administration.


“Our nation’s activist EPA has once again hurt our workers and our local economy,” he said. “This is another skirmish with the current administration and its ‘War on Coal.’”


State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, said in another news release that “the federal government is costing real people real jobs by pushing ahead with theoretical power-plant standards. Forcing the closure of reliable power plants will drive up the price of electricity for consumers and do little to improve the environment.”


The Sierra Club has a different view.


“This is good news for communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania who will benefit from healthier air and cleaner water,” Tom Schuster, Pennsylvania campaign representative for the environmental organization, said in a release.


Randy Francisco, the club’s organizing representative in Western Pennsylvania, said: “These plants are both over 40 years old and have been making people sick for too long. Retiring the Mitchell plant and ceasing to dump dangerous coal ash in unlined pits will mean the Monongahela River can continue on its path to a vibrant recovery and families will have safer water to drink.”


Patrick Grenter, head of an environmental watchdog group, was not surprised by the planned plant closures.


“I think (they) basically reflect the change in the view of the reality of coal. It’s truly a fuel of the past,” said Grenter, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, a downtown Washington organization that addresses environmental issues related to fossil fuel extraction.


Grenter said he can appreciate the high cost of operating an environmentally efficient coal-fired plant, but that doing so is necessary.


“Those are the costs of preventing people from getting sick, from dying, from streams and air being polluted. Finally, steps are being taken to make companies internalize instead of externalize these costs.


“As this happens, we’re seeing that coal is not economically viable.”



Staff writer Scott Beveridge contributed to this report.


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