Power off for good at Mitchell plant in Union

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 11:21 a.m.

The shock of a summertime announcement that their workplace would close was replaced Friday by dark, cold reality as the last employees left the Mitchell Power Plant.

Joseph “Buzzy” Gaso of Bentleyville was among those exiting the coal-fed power plant in the Courtney section of Union Township.

Most of the final employees left early Friday because power to the electric generation plant had been shut off Thursday at noon. There was no electricity and no heat in the plant, except for one room that will be used by workers who will periodically check on the facility.

As he left the plant after 32 years of service, Gaso said he was faced one last time with “the general shock that everything happened the way it did.”

“(Thursday) when we left, we knew today was going to be our last day,” Gaso said.

Greg Garry, president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 102K, retired in late October after 31 years of service at Mitchell. He questioned the necessity to close his facility and the Hatfield's Ferry Power Station near Masontown .

“I personally thought it was wrong – Hatfield, too,” Garry said. “I think we were still viable. We had a good rapport with the DEP.

“There were no violations due to air quality. I believe we should have stayed on for another two years.”

The Mitchell plant stopped electric generation in early October. Crews have been performing maintenance and environmental work since then.

In July, FirstEnergy announced plans to deactivate the two facilities. The move cost 380 jobs, including 70 at Mitchell.

This is the second time in less than two years that the Akron-based company has decided to close coal-fired plants rather than retrofit them to meet tougher emissions standards.

The company decided in 2012 to shutter nine coal-fired power plants.

At the time of the announcement in July, FirstEnergy said that it would cost $275 million to bring the local plants in line with new federal air quality rules.

FirstEnergy cited the Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards as the reason behind the closings.

Dave Havel of Jefferson Hills said he plans to “take a little vacation.”

He was offered a job by the company 90 minutes from home, a far cry from the nine-mile commute to Mitchell he had become accustomed to over the past 32 years.

At 51, Havel said he is 2½ years from retirement age.

Havel said that as he left the plant Friday, he had mixed emotions.

“I felt a little sad, and a little glad, to finally get it over with,” Havel said.

At 51, Gaso is too young to retire.

“I'm very upset,” Gaso said. “I had 32 years in on Sunday, and now I have to go looking for a job. My wife doesn't work. And I have two handicapped children I adopted.”

Gaso went to work at Mitchell a few months after graduating from trade school in October 1981. He worked in the chemical lab at the plant.

“It didn't have to come to this,” Gaso said.

“The (environmental) laws are not taking effect until 2015. Why they are doing it now makes no sense.”

Gaso said the company offered him a job an hour's drive away at half his salary.

“I feel for everyone who lost their jobs,” Gaso said. “I'm not the only one who has a family and is a sole provider.”

Bill Staley of Finleyville grew up in New Eagle – in the shadow of Mitchell – his mother sweeping fly ash off the family's porch each morning.

“Little did I know I would get a job there and make a career of it,” Staley said.

But in January 1982, with a new scrubber recently added to the plant, Mitchell was hiring.

Staley said about 80 percent of those at the plant in the final days were hired at that time.

“It was a good place to work,” Staley said. “I was proud of my job. I was proud to tell people I worked there.”

But Staley acknowledged that “times change,” brought on by stiffer environmental regulations.

As the senior employee at the plant, Staley was given the dubious honor of being the last to leave, locking the plant behind him 6:15 p.m. Friday.

As he left, Staley entered a new phase of his life – retirement.

With the power shut off Thursday, the last few men entered the plant in the pre-dawn darkness Friday. They gathered in the one room for warmth periodically while performing their final duties.

“That drove home the fact that, yeah, they're shutting it down,” Staley said.

“I've been going to that plant for 32 years. I spent most of my adult life there. It was a very sad moment. A big part of my life was spent there.”

The 57-year-old Staley had hoped to put off retirement for a few more years.

“It's time for my new adventure,” Staley said. “We'll see what tomorrow brings. I'm still in a state of denial.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or cbuckley@tribweb.com.

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