JEFFERSON – Energy issues were the topic of discussion at a hearing held by the House Democratic Policy Committee in the social hall of the Jefferson Volunteer Fire Department Monday. The hearing was held at the request of State Rep. Pam Snyder in light of ongoing discussions regarding the pending closure of Hatfield’s Ferry and Mitchell power plants by First Energy. The hearing also addressed other energy issues in general across the state.
Panels of speakers addressed the committee for more than two hours on topics including coal, natural gas, renewable energy, EPA regulations and regulation/deregulation of electricity in the state.
Thomas Hall, executive vice-president of the Utility Workers Union of America System Local 102, dated the changes in the power industry in the Commonwealth to Dec. 3, 1996. Hall has worked at Hatfield for 35 years.
“That was the day our (former Governor Tom Ridge) signed into law generation deregulation. Enron and Wall Street were the major drivers of this and we are all aware of the corruption they instituted through their acts of corporate greed,” Hall said. “They said we would have the opportunity to shop around for the generation supplier of choice. We were told the customers will be the biggest beneficiaries of the competition because of lower rates of electricity.” None of that came true, Hall added.
Instead, Hall said, deregulation benefited only the people at the top of the companies. He referred to a speech given by UWUA national President Donald Wightman a year after deregulation went into effect. Hall cited a list of circumstances Wightman said would occur as time went on.
“As we stand here today, we all have to admit that everything President Wightman said 16 years ago has come true. That brings us to the situation before us today – the plant closures,” Hall said.
Hall told the committee FirstEnergy has an opportunity to continue to employ each and every one of those who will lose jobs with the closure of the Hatfield and Mitchell plants. He noted the field work that has not been taken care of with vines growing up utility poles and branches laying on them.
“Instead of using workers to help with service and reliability they fully intend to displace them,” Hall said. “All the while, customers suffer with power blinking off and on when the wind blows too hard.”
Hall said FirstEnergy continues to change its story regarding why these plants are being closed.
“We were told the reason for the closings was the mercury and air toxin regulations. Then they changed their story a few weeks later, saying the real reason Hatfield is closing is because it’s losing money,” Hall said. “Employees are no longer valued as assets, but pawns being held hostage to corporate greed.”
Hall said selling the plant is another subject that FirstEnergy is not addressing. He and panel member Robert Whalen, president of System Local 102 UWUA, told the committee there has been interest in purchasing the plant but Whalen said phone calls regarding this topic are not being returned. He said it appears FirstEnergy is planning to take actions that ensure once these two plants are retired they cannot be used ever again.
Whalen asked the committee to do something to stop them from destroying these assets that were “paid for by rate payer dollars.” “It belongs to the people and the businesses of Pennsylvania,” he said of the power plants.
“It is time for Pennsylvania to look at the current deregulated industry and return the generation of electricity to a regulated entity under the control of the PUC (Public Utilities Commission). Prior to 1998 it was required to maintain facilities,” Whalen said, noting a “reasonable profit” could still be made.
Hall said there is a misnomer regarding the EPA regulations.
“The seeds for these regulations were planted in the Clean Air Act Amendments in the early 1990s by then President George H. W. Bush. The amendments called for the EPA to conduct a study that Congress would use to determine if regulating mercury and air toxins is appropriate.”
In 1998, the study was released with Congress concurring regulation was necessary.
“The deadline was pushed back several times until the EPA finally issued standards in 2005 during the George W. Bush administration. During the entire time, Pennsylvania deregulation was in effect and corporate raiders were fully aware of the mercury and air toxin issues,” Hall said. “Yet they continued feeding at the trough, stuffing their pockets with as much money as they could squeeze in. They should have been putting that money back into the buisnesses.”
Hall and Ed Yankovich, International District 2 vice president of the United Mine Workers, joined Whalen in urging the committee to consider a push toward regulating the industry again.
They weren’t the only panelists to address the issue of deregulation as at least a partial cause of the potential closures and a reversal of such as a means of fixing problems in the long term.
A discussion about the reliability of the grid led to talk of the potential for forced blackouts from the closures. The panel spoke about the potential for lost business and jobs as a domino effect from the closures to other businesses that work with the plants or supply services to its employees.
Panel members argued renewable energy resources are not as reliable and therefore subject to adding to the outage issue. This drove a discussion of the long history of coal in the area and the new influx of natural gas. Panel members agreed that a combination of such was the best solution for the generation of reliable electricity for the grid, noting that wind and solar power cannot be counted on at all times. Members instead argued that base load sources of power such as gas and coal are not replaceable by renewable energy.
When these power plants in Washington and Greene counties close “it will leave a huge economic footprint,” said Greene County Commissioner Blair Zimmerman, speaking as a panelist, noting he didn’t have any estimates yet on the impact to the economy of the county. However, Zimmerman, as well as Snyder, noted the coal industry in general is responsible for 40 percent of the budget of Greene County. Zimmerman said that every chunk taken out of the coal industry in the county is one that property owners could be forced to replace in increased taxes, something he said he doesn’t want to see.