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FirstEnergy to close six coal-fired power plants

FirstEnergy Corp. on Thursday became the first major U.S. power company to close aging coal-fired power plants because of tougher new air pollution rules.

It won't be the last.

"Increasingly with these older plants, it's more expensive to clean them up than shut them down," said M. Granger Morgan, head of the engineering and public policy department at Carnegie Mellon University.

FirstEnergy announced it would close six plants -- including the 54-year-old Armstrong Power Station in Adrian in Armstrong County -- rather than comply with federal Environmental Protection Agency rules to reduce mercury and soot emissions. The company operates 17 coal power plants.

"Everybody that has older coal plants is doing the calculation," Morgan said.

Four power plants in Ohio and one in Maryland will be shut down by Sept. 1, said FirstEnergy, which is based in Akron, Ohio.

More than 500 FirstEnergy employees will be affected, including 60 in Armstrong County. The company said some of the laid-off workers may be offered jobs at other plants.

Environmental groups cheered the announcement.

"Above all, this is a win for public health and for families who have been breathing polluted air from these outdated plants," said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

Armstrong County officials said they were "deeply disturbed" by the job losses.

"Not only are good-paying jobs being lost at the Armstrong power plant; jobs will certainly be lost in ancillary industries, support services and by small coal-mining operations," said Dave Battaglia, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners.

Other energy companies are likely to follow FirstEnergy's lead.

American Electric Power Co. Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's largest electricity producer, said in June that it would close five plants and partially shut six others if the EPA's mercury and other pollution rules were approved.

A company spokesman said AEP has been reviewing its closure plan since the rules were finalized. The company has "very deep concerns" about electric grid reliability if it closes plants in Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.

More than 32 coal-fired plants in a dozen states would be forced to shut down under the new rules, according to a survey reported by The Associated Press last month.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, finalized by the EPA in late December, "will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year," the agency said.

The Obama administration was under court order to issue the new rule after a federal court threw out an attempt by the Bush administration to exempt power plants from controls for toxic pollutants.

The new rules were made at a bad time for the economy, an industry group said.

"Just as we are clawing our way out of the Great Recession, states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which rely heavily on electricity from coal, will be particularly hard-hit by the cost of these regulations," said spokeswoman Lisa Miller of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

The six plants FirstEnergy will close can generate 2,689 megawatts of power, but they recently were used only during times of high and intermediate demand for power. The plants provided about 10 percent of the FirstEnergy's electricity production over the past three years, the company said.

FirstEnergy, which operates West Penn Power and Penn Power subsidiaries in Pennsylvania, expects it will make up for the lost power from its other plants, said Charles Lasky, vice president of Fossil Fleet Operations.

Pennsylvanians should not worry about having enough electricity here, said Jan Jarrett, CEO of the Harrisburg-based environmental group Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.

"We have more than enough power in Pennsylvania to keep the lights on," she said.

FirstEnergy expects it will spend $2 billion to $3 billion on upgrades at its other power plants to meet the new rules, Lasky said. The company's newer plants, built in the 1970s and 1980s, will "justify the investment," he said.

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