End is near for Mitchell, Hatfield’s power plants

End is near for Mitchell, Hatfield’s plants

October 12, 2013
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Rick Shrum / Observer-Reporter
Carl Crawley Jr. of New Eagle is concerned about his son-in-law, Greg Garr, an employee at Mitchell Power Station. Order a Print
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Rick Shrum / Observer-Reporter
Monongahela resident Ted Popovich, who assisted in construction of Mitchell Power Station, said the plant’s closure “is making a hardship for people.” Order a Print
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Rick Shrum / Observer-Reporter
FirstEnergy Corp. soon will shut down Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired plant in Union Township. Order a Print
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Rick Shrum / Observer-Reporter
Don DeVore, new owner of Monongahela’s DeVore Hardware, said his mother, Grace, was an original secretary at Mitchell Power Station. Order a Print
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FirstEnergy Corp’s Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station on the banks of the Monongahela River Order a Print

Greg Garry has helped power Mitchell Power Station for 31 years. On Friday, the parent company will pull the plug on him.

That will be his final day at the Union Township facility, a Monongahela River staple since 1949 with the distinctive red and white towers. FirstEnergy Corp. is closing it and another regional coal-fired plant, Hatfield’s Ferry in Greene County, eliminating 380 jobs.

“People feel like they’ve been kicked to the curb,” said Garry, a chemical lab technician.

The cost of bringing both sites into compliance with new, stricter Environmental Protection Agency standards and the affordability and abundance of natural gas to generate electricity largely fueled the determination to shutter in October.

These plants generate electricity through coal burning, a process that opponents insist is “dirty” because of the emission of carbon dioxide, a major atmospheric threat. Proponents maintain that coal is cheap and plentiful, and technological upgrades enable that fossil fuel to burn cleaner than ever.

Hatfield’s, built in 1969, is closing despite the installation of scrubbers – to remove sulfur dioxide and mercury from emissions – in 2009. Allegheny Power, predecessor to FirstEnergy, spent $650 million for them.

FirstEnergy announced its decision in July, another uppercut delivered to labor and the Mon Valley, one that likely will strain related industries, businesses, restaurants, auto dealerships, tax bases and towns in an area that was already struggling.

Most of the 380 facing furlough will be gone after Friday. Skeleton crews – 23 at Hatfield’s, 13 at Mitchell – will stay on at both plants until they completely close, probably by mid-December.

FirstEnergy said it would try to place furloughed employees in jobs throughout the company. Last week, however, Jim Premoshis, president of Hatfield’s local of the Utility Workers Union of America, said the only jobs mentioned were for meter readers, which pay about half of what a plant worker earns.

Reality sets in

Many who will lose their jobs at the plants may encounter unemployment or employment at much lower pay, which is bound to affect their spending habits.

“A lot of these people are people I know and are my friends,” said state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, who has pushed to keep the plants open.

“I am heartsick for the employees and their families. Some of them are close to retirement, and it’s going to impact their pensions.”

Garry and his Monongahela family are not in financial peril, for now. At 56, he became eligible to retire this year and is doing so. And like a number of others, he is getting a severance package. His wife, Sherrie Lynn, who used to work at Mitchell, is a revenue operator with West Penn Power, another subsidiary of FirstEnergy. They have a 15-year-old son.

“I will take my time to find something suitable,” he said of future employment. “Many people are in much worse shape than I.”

He is bitter nevertheless, along with a number of co-workers who are losing viable jobs and being cast aside at ages that are as attractive to prospective employers as a bucket of warts.

“The company said we are good employees with a good safety record.” said Garry, who is on the executive committee at Mitchell. “My feeling is if you have good employees, treat them well.”

He said no one at Mitchell was feeling well July 9, when FirstEnergy announced it would shut the plants Oct. 9, this past Wednesday.

“It was total shock and dismay. Our plant supervisor was taken aback. We always thought that our plant might be closed because of its age, but thought we’d have Hatfield’s (built in 1969) to go to. When we were told Hatfield’s was closing too, we were overwhelmed.”

Though numbed by the news, workers maintained hope while they maintained their jobs, believing something could rescue their plants, perhaps a buyer. No one has come forth, nothing has happened, and reality eventually bit.

“It took a while for this to really sink in, maybe the last couple of weeks,” Garry said. “We thought that maybe something could change their mind. But nothing is going to change their mind.”

Tax base hit

These soon-to-be-mothballed plants generate more than electricity. They account for more than $600,000 a year in property taxes.

Allegheny Energy Supply Co. LLC, a FirstEnergy subsidiary, pays $134,171 annually on Mitchell Power Station, according to the Washington County assessment office. Of that, $102,617 goes to Ringgold School District, $21,293 to the county and $10,262 to Union Township.

The market value of the nearly 30-acre property is $3,420,560. That figure, however, is based on the last assessment year, 1981, which is not a good barometer of today’s market. A countywide reassessement is under way.

FirstEnergy pays $500,617 a year in property taxes on Hatfield’s Ferry, which was built in 1969. That total breaks down to $353,902 to Southeastern Greene School District, $115,941 to the county and $30,774 to Monongahela Township, according to Greene County’s assessment office.

The property is valued at $13,616,100 for taxing purposes, and that value will remain unchanged after the plant is closed. “Closing it doesn’t do a thing,” said John Frazier, chief assessor. The impact will be felt only after workers start dismantling the plant.

The Hatfield’s property is not valued as a working power plant, Frazier said. Its value is determined by the value of the land, as an industrial property, plus the value of the buildings and site improvements on the property, minus depreciation.

“The value of the plant will not change unless they tear it down,” Frazier said. “If they would tear down a building, it would reduce the tax liability by the value of that building.”

That also is the case at Mitchell.

The company also could claim a property is not worth the current value and challenge the assessed value through the appeals process, Frazier said.

If the value of a property were reduced substantially, “that would be biggest impact to the school district,” said Patrick Sweeney, business manager at Southeastern Greene.

Other impacts of the closing in regard to taxes, however, are to be determined. Hatfield workers pay earned income taxes, but those taxes are distributed to the local governments and school districts in which the workers reside.

“We really don’t know how many people in our district work at the plant,” Sweeney said.

Hatfield’s employees also pay an occupational privilege tax of $10 that is split equally between the school district and township. The tax revenue that generates, however, is minimal, he said.

Union Township Supervisor Larry Spahr said tax revenue lost by the Mitchell shutdown would “not be that devastating for us as a municipality.”

Local impact

Hardware doesn’t wear on Don DeVore. He has been behind the counter of the family business for 50-plus years.

The owner of DeVore Hardware on Monongahela’s Main Street is almost as inextricably linked to Mitchell Power Plant, 3 miles to the north. Familial roots are at the root of that, too.

His late mother, Grace, was among the original secretaries at Mitchell, hired before it began operations in the aftermath of World War II.

“She was quite involved with the startup,” said her son, smiling at the reflection. “She had a lot of good memories from working there. When I heard about the closing, I immediately thought of her and what she would be thinking.”

Grace DeVore probably would be distraught. Don, an easygoing sort who assumed ownership of the 110-year-old store, is downcast about this latest local industrial trauma. He has lived in the Valley most of his life and has seen steel mills, mines and other operations disappear.

Now Mitchell.

This erodes his civic pride and, ultimately, may erode his customer base.

“You wonder what else can happen when this happens,” he said. “You think, ‘Is this a sign of the times or a bad mistake?’ It’s an empty feeling.

“I’m an environmentalist. I like clean things. But I want jobs. We pay a dear price for being clean. I guess you could say, ‘No dirt, no jobs.’”

DeVore’s store is on the northern edge of one of the livelier business districts in the Mid-Mon Valley. He cannot predict the impact the local plant closure may ultimately have on his business – it’s difficult to determine how many Mitchell’s workers stop in – and is philosophical about its future.

“Every business wants to be lucrative,” he said, “but if you don’t have a number of customers …

“We’re on a 30-day plan. We could be here today, gone next month.”

Brian Thompson, a customer from Findlay Township, waved toward the tracks behind DeVore and speculated on the hit that industries serving Mitchell and Hatfield’s may absorb.

“So much of the railroads’ business is coal,” Thompson said. “Then there’s the barge traffic. Much of what they do is coal-related, and that could affect the locks and dams. The trickle-down effect could be tremendous.”

Carl Crawley Jr. of Monongahela is retired and a regular at DeVore Hardware. He also is Garry’s father-in-law, and has difficulty comprehending why his daughter’s family – and so many other families – are going to be hit by FirstEnergy’s decision.

Also pointing to the rails, he said, “These plants are coal-fired, and you see rail cars passing all the time that are filled with coal. Are you shipping it all to China? When is it going to stop?”

Mark Slagle owns two Monongahela companies, Slagle Roofing and Construction Inc. and Trinity Garage Door and Awning. Asked about the Mitchell shutdown, he said he’s “not sure how this will affect us.”

Slagle supports the workers. “It’s crazy to me,” he said, “that you work so many years and make a good living, and all of a sudden the company changes things. With all the resources they have, they should keep (the plant) going.”

The Hatfield’s Ferry closing is bound to have an impact on the economies of Greene and Fayette counties.

“A lot of our customers work at the power plant,” said Cindy Rudolph, who, with her husband, Dave, operate Super Dave’s Motorcycle and ATV, a parts and maintenance business near the plant.

“A lot of them drop their bikes off here before work, then pick them up after they’ve been serviced,” she said.

Rudolph said she couldn’t say what percentage of their business is from plant employees, but at least once a week they do work for a plant employee.

“It’s going to be noticeable,” she said. “Many of those who lose their jobs at the plant will probably have to cut back with their spending. If you’re not working, I’m sure you have to stick to essentials, and a motorcycle might not be an essential.”

The closing will impact the whole community, Rudolph said. “I don’t know what’s next, it seems a lot of jobs are leaving this area.”

“Naturally, it’s going to hurt business,” said Kevin Polish, who operates KJ’s Pro Archery, also near Hatfield’s Ferry.

“There’s a lot of people come in, not just with the plant but with the subcontractors, boilermakers and others,” he said. “It’s a major blow.”

Polish said he believes many of these workers will continue to patronize his business because most will probably continue to hunt. But losing a job has to hurt.

“I feel for them,” he said.

Pain trickles down

Snyder said the closings will have impact on small businesses that provide goods and services to the plant, as well as those regularly patronized by plant employees.

“Boilermakers and other construction and trade workers are in and out of that place all the time,” she said.

“It will also have an impact on the local gas stations and restaurants. Many of the employees probably stop at a local store on their way to work to pick up a cup of coffee, or something for their lunch. It will have an impact across the board.”

The closing also could have an indirect impact on what has been Greene County’s predominant industry, coal mining.

“I’m concerned about how this will impact the coal mines and the coal miners,” Snyder said. “It could have a trickle-down effect on that industry.”

Alpha Natural Resources’ Cumberland Mine has been one of the local coal producers that provided coal to the plant.

“The Hatfield plant has been a good customer for us, especially since its proximity only four miles from the Cumberland Mine kept the fuel flowing reliably so they could produce electricity reliably,” Ted Pile, vice president of corporate communications for Alpha, said in an email statement.

“Despite the planned shutdown of Hatfield, we expect to maintain our long-term relationship with First Energy. We think we have other options to ship to other destinations, and we’re working on those right now,” he said.

Pile added, “It’s sad news when a utility that’s invested so much in air-control technologies and provided affordable power to area residents is forced to abandon ship because it can’t keep up with an overzealous EPA.”

‘This is political’

The pending closures have engendered outrage throughout the Valley. A number of customers outside the Monongahela Sheetz last week welcomed the opportunity to vent on the subject.

Jim Bucchianeri, a retired food concessionaire from North Charleroi Borough, said, “I think what’s wrong is we have a president who hates fossil fuels – coal anyway. I think it’s ridiculous that they’re taking jobs out of an area that is seriously depressed.

“What’s wrong with the plants is that the EPA standards are so damn high, no one can achieve them.”

Ted Popovich of Monongahela did on-site test borings before Mitchell was built and later owned a local firm, Tri-State Drilling. He hammered away at FirstEnergy, saying, “They’re making a hardship for people in town because people are getting laid off everywhere.”

“It’s jobs, and the Valley doesn’t have jobs as it is. No one has work around here,” said James Romito, a retired mechanic from Donora.

Al Lenzi of New Eagle Borough said simply, “I don’t think they should close anything. People need these jobs. Pretty soon, there will be nothing in the Valley.”

“This global warming is a joke. This is political,” said John Sproul of Carroll Township.

“It’s a shame they’re putting so many people out of work,” said Monogahela resident Eleanor Sirilla, whose late husband worked for years in Maple Creek Mine.

“They don’t take into consideration how many lives they affect,” Crawley said of companies in general. “I’ve met several people who work there. This is going to affect a number of young people.”

Snyder agrees. Younger employees, just starting families and building homes, face different – and greater – challenges today than in the past.

“Where will they go from here?” she asked. “It’s always been the mindset in this region that if you have a job with a utility company, you have a job for life.”

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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