Power station closing, restoration of lake among top 10 local stories of 2013

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The announced closing of Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station in Monongahela Township, resulting in the loss of the 380 employees, was voted the top story of 2013 by the staff of the Observer-Reporter’s Greene County office.

Also receiving votes were the announced agreement between the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Consol Energy Inc. that will eventually result in the restoration of Duke Lake at Ryerson Station State Park, and a look back at Southwest Regional Medical Center’s difficult decisions and its plans for the future.

Here is this year’s complete list:

1. FirstEnergy Corp. announced in July that it would close its Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station in Monongahela Township, Greene County, and its Mitchell Power Station in Union Township, Washington County, by the end of October.

The company cited the weak demand for electricity, low electricity prices and the costs of bringing the two plants into compliance with environmental regulations.

The closings of the two coal-fired plants resulted in the layoff of 380 employees and shocked many in the community.

The capacity of the plants, 2,080 megawatts, represented about 10 percent of FirstEnergy’s total generating capacity. In addition, only four years earlier, FirstEnergy’s predecessor, Allegheny Power, had invested $650 million in Hatfield’s Ferry to install scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide and mercury from its emissions.

Local state elected officials organized several hearings, citing concerns not only for the loss of jobs but also the impact the closings might have on the reliability of electrical services.

FirstEnergy Generation President James Lash, testifying at one hearing, said that for several years the company had been faced with a weak demand for power and market prices at “historic lows,” partly as a result of the abundance of natural gas.

An investment of more than $270 million would be needed to bring the plants into compliance with Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that took effect in 2015, and new emission standards were on the horizon, he said. But even if environmental regulations were removed from the equation, Lash said, the plants remained “uneconomical.”

The plant closings were subject to review by PJM Interconnection, which ensures the reliability of the electrical grid. PJM completed its analysis and concluded no system reliability problems would result from the plant closings.

On Oct. 18, the company laid off 110 plant employees, keeping 78 on until December to complete final shutdown activities.

In October, company officials said 60 employees had been reassigned to other operations. However, none of the reassigned workers were members of the Utility Workers Union of America, which was then negotiating a company-wide contract with the company.

2. An agreement was announced in April between the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Consol Energy Inc. that will eventually result in the restoration of Duke Lake at Ryerson Station State Park.

The lake has been dry since July 2005, when cracks began to expand in the lake’s 45-year-old concrete dam. As a safety measure, DCNR drained the lake and removed part of the spillway to prevent water from backing up during heavy rains.

DCNR filed a claim against Consol, maintaining the damage was caused by subsidence from Consol’s Bailey Mine, which was longwall mining near the park.

The state Department of Environmental Protection investigated and determined the damage was caused by mining. It ordered Consol to restore the dam.

A compromise suggested by a mediator led to the development of an agreement that was subsequently accepted by DCNR and Consol.

Under the agreement, Consol admitted no liability but agreed to pay $36 million to replace the dam and give DCNR eight parcels of land it owns adjacent to the park containing 506 acres, increasing the size of the 1,164-acre park by 40 percent.

The company will be allowed to drill for natural gas beneath the park using horizontal drilling but only from wells outside park boundaries.

The company also will be permitted to mine coal it owns in the eastern area of the park, but it will be prohibited from mining under the dam or lake.

3. On Jan. 31, Southwest Regional Medical Center closed its Hematology and Oncology Center, prompting Cindy Cowie, SRMC’s chief executive officer, to remark, “We are at a pivotal crossroads with even more changes coming our way.”

Nine months later, those changes became a reality. Facing unprecedented challenges with reductions in payment from insurers and increases in bad debt, the hospital announced it was laying off 29 employees.

The employees were from different areas of the hospital, from nurses to cafeteria workers, but as part of the Service Employees International Union contract, the employees were given the opportunity to take a voluntary reduction through retirement or resignation and 14 chose this venue, reducing the impact of nonvoluntary layoffs to 15.

In addition to the layoffs, the hospital also announced it would only be performing scheduled surgical procedures and that other regional providers would accept patients that need this level of care where onsite physician monitoring is provided around the clock.

Also, the current intensive care unit will transition to an Intermediate Care Unit, to allow for specialized treatment and monitoring of hospital patients.

Then, a month after these changes were announced, the hospital was served with a lawsuit from a former employee, alleging the hospital failed to provide adequate care, refused to report purported inadequacies and was terminated because she raised these matters.

Several weesk after the federal lawsuit was filed the Pennsylvania Department of health conducted an inspection and analysis of care provided, and according to the hospital, the DOH investigation revealed the allegations to have been misplaced and unwarranted. Nonetheless the hospital must still defend the suit in court.

4. On Nov. 15, after deliberating for a little over five hours, a Greene County jury found Jason William Roe, 32, formerly of Spraggs, guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Cordele Edward Patterson, 38, of Daisytown, but was unable to reach a verdict for Roe’s wife, Lana Kay Roe, 41, who was also charged in Patterson’s death.

Police were called to a cabin on Strawn Hill Road near Spraggs on Aug. 14, 2012, after Lana Roe fled from the scene with gunshot wounds to her face and neck. The jury found Jason Roe guilty of that shooting and also convicted him of aggravated assault against his wife.

Lana Roe was initially considered a victim by police but subsequently was arrested on Aug. 24 and charged as an accomplice in the homicide.

Jury selection for a retrial of Lana Roe is scheduled for March 20 with a trial date set for March 24.

Meanwhile, while housed at the Greene County Jail after his arrest, Jason Roe and fellow prisoner Rocco John Iacovone, escaped on June 22 for two hours before being captured. The escape led to the implementation of a county-wide alert system in the event of an emergency situation at the prison, as well as several changes to the prison’s policies and procedures. Residents who wish to be notified by the alert system are required to register and keep their contact information current through the county’s website www.co.greene.pa.us.

5. The disappearance of a 16-year old Star City, W.Va., teen ended in tragedy on Jan. 16 when her body was identified as one found on off of Morris Run in Wayne Township. She had been murdered. Skylar Annette Neese was reported missing from the James Place Apartments on Crawford Avenue on July 7, 2012, by her parents Dave and Mary Neese.

Investigators were led to the scene by Rachel Shoaf, 17, of Morgantown,W.Va., who subsequently pleaded guilty to the stabbing death of Neese in exchange for her cooperation against her alleged accomplice, Sheila Eddy, 17, of Morgantown. Eddy’s family lives about three miles from the scene on Eddy’s Run Road.

The Neeses said Skylar considered Shoaf and Eddy to be her best friends. After her disappearance, Eddy helped distribute flyers and search for Neese. The only motive given for taking Neese’s life came from Shoaf, who said they simply did not want to be friends with her any longer.

Eddy was arrested on May 1, 2012. Both girls’ cases were elevated to adult status by the court.

As part of the plea agreement with Shoaf, Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Marcia Ashdown has recommended a minimum sentence of 20 years inprison.

Eddy is scheduled to go to trial for first-degree murder on Jan. 28 in W.Va. Circuit Court.

6. During the past year, the heads of two law enforcement offices announced their retirements: Tim Hawfield, chief of the Waynesburg Borough Police Department, and Richard Ketchem, Greene County sheriff.

Ketchem, 65, announced in January that he would not seek re-election to his seventh term of office but would retire at the end of his present term in December. He cited health reasons as the basis for leaving a position he had held since 1990.

Three candidates subsequently announced they would run for the office in the Democratic primary and Brian Tennant, a patrolman with the Waynesburg Borough Police Department, won both the Democratic and Republican nominations, the later by write-ins.

Hawfield, 65, announced in March that he would retire in July after heading the Waynesburg police department for 32 years.

In selecting a replacement, Waynesburg Borough Council had the borough civil service commission test eligible officers in the department for promotion to the position of chief. Council in May voted to hire Robert Toth for the post.

Toth had been with the police department for 16 years and was a patrolman and a criminal investigator. He was promoted to serve as assistant chief until July 16, when Hawfield retired and he became chief.

7. Preliminary work began in the fall on a long-awaited highway project to help alleviate traffic congestion on Route 19/21 in Morrisville, Franklin Township.

The project will involve widening the road from Arch Street to Sugar Run Road to four lanes and replacing the existing two lane railroad overpass and the bridge over Ten Mile Creek with new four-lane structures.

Preliminary work was started that included the demolition of the McDonald’s Restaurant at the Sugar Run Road intersection, the only building that will be displaced by the project, and the relocation of sewage and water lines under Ten Mile Creek in the project area.

The project will take two and half to three years to complete.

Highway traffic is expected to be maintained during construction and no detour is planned. This will be accomplished by building two lanes of the new bridge next to the old bridge and then transferring traffic to the new section while the old bridge is demolished and two new lanes are built in its place.

The first phase, which is now under way, is expected to help alleviate traffic bottlenecks by giving eastbound traffic turning right onto Sugar Run Road a dedicated turning lane. It also will address the biggest hurdles in the overall project, the replacement of the bridge and overpass.

8. It was not a particularly good year for Community Bank in Rogersville. Twice, the financial institution was robbed, once on March 19, and the second time on Nov. 12.

In the first robbery, a person wearing a dark mask entered the bank at 3:36 p.m. and passed a note to the first teller, demanding money. No gun was displayed. The robber was given money and fled on foot across the road from the bank into a residential neighborhood. Then in November two men, one armed with a handgun and the other with a shotgun, left with an undetermined amount of money, but left behind a small box on the counter one of the robbers indicated was a bomb. The Allegheny County Bomb Squad was called and determined the package was not an explosive device.

But robberies were not limited to Community Bank in 2013. On March 3, woman entered the First National Bank of Rices Landing at 928 North Route 88 and passed a note to a teller indicating she had a gun, although no firearm was seen or displayed, and demanded money.

9. In September John Robert Lohr, 57, of 671 Ceylon Road, Carmichaels, a member of Greene County’s Children and Youth Services (CYS) Advisory Board, was extradited from the North Central Regional Jail in Marion County, W.Va., based on a fugitive warrant, alleging over a period of several years he forcibly raped a young boy placed in his care by CYS. Lohr was confronted with the accusations by family members on Aug. 18. He was found unconscious the following day by Ohiopyle State Park rangers inside a vehicle with a hose from the tailpipe ran into the interior. He was flown to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh where he recovered.

Lohr was arrested Aug. 29 at the behavioral medicine unit in Fairmont General Hospital, Fairmont, W.Va. His case is pending in Greene County Court.

10. On April 15 A truck carrying drill cuttings from a Center Township well site set off the radiation warning system at the Max Environmental Technologies disposal site in Yukon, South Huntingdon Township. The Rice Energy Inc. truck coming from the Thunder 2 well pad in Greene County was immediately quarantined and tested at the site to determine what type of radiation it contained.

When Max Environmental determined the load contained 96 microrem (mrem) of Radium 226 it was rejected and returned to the well pad in Greene County. Microrem is the measure of the biological effect of absorbed radiation. The standard in Pennsylvania is 10 above background.

The rejected waste is referred to as TENORM, an anachronism for technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material. The material from Thunder 2 was eventually taken to a U S Ecology site in Idaho for proper disposal, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

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