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Jobs could trump health when it comes to power plant closings

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By Tom Fontaine and Liz Zemba
Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

In two Western Pennsylvania river towns where people once might have worried about air pollution, concern for workers losing their livelihoods could trump concern for human health and the environment if FirstEnergy Corp. turns off the lights at coal-fired power plants in October.

“There just aren't many good-paying jobs left around here anymore. I'm fortunate to have this job,” said Melissa Morse, 30, a clerk at a 7-Eleven about a mile from Washington County's Mitchell Power Station, one of the plants slated to close on Oct. 9.

The other is Hatfield's Ferry Power Station in Greene County, across the Monongahela River from Masontown in Fayette County.

Some residents blame the Obama administration for more stringent environmental regulations taking effect in 2015, though for years some energy companies avoided installing costly scrubbers on power plants under earlier Environmental Protection Agency rules.

“Companies kept getting extension after extension for years. It just happens that this is pinching them at the same time now,” said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a Pennsylvania representative for the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project.

FirstEnergy spokeswoman Stephanie Thornton concedes regulations are a factor, along with “a really slow economy, marked by low prices and low demand for electricity.”

Others question the company's motives. The Utility Workers Union of America urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to investigate whether FirstEnergy is trying to manipulate the market by reducing energy supply to boost demand and prices. The company denies that it is.

Almost everyone wonders what the future holds for the hundreds of riverfront acres where the plants sit. The company says it will keep the land.

“It's just too early to tell how this is all going to affect us. In a lot of ways, we won't know until we know,” said Union Township Secretary Debra Nigon.

Union, Washington County

Raymond Hruby calls the thick cloud rising from a towering red-and-white smokestack at Mitchell Power Station his “weather vane.”

“I can look at it and see which way the wind blows,” said Hruby, 76, whose son works in the nuclear energy industry in Tennessee.

“Soon, it'll be gone,” Hruby said of the plume.

When Mitchell closes, the largely residential township of 5,700 will become Pennsylvania's first community to lose two coal-fired plants since 2010, according to a list compiled by the Sierra Club, a San Francisco environmental group.

The former GenOn Energy Inc.'s Elrama coal-fired plant, also in Union, shut down in October. Energy companies announced plans to close a dozen coal- and oil-fired plants in Pennsylvania since 2010, the Sierra Club said. That year, the EPA began considering more stringent regulations to reduce mercury and other toxic emissions.

Last week, Valley Forge-based PJM Interconnection, a grid operator that distributes electricity to Pennsylvania and 12 other states said closing the plants would compromise the electrical grid's reliability. First-Energy said it's discussing the issue with PJM but still plans to close the plants, idling about 380 employees.

FirstEnergy said it would cost $25 million to bring Mitchell into compliance with regulations taking effect in April 2015. Closing the plant will cost millions, though company officials did not provide an exact figure.

FirstEnergy estimates it will pay $15 million in severance to workers, about 80 of them at Mitchell. The company will spend money to monitor the sites with small staffs.

Mitchell's 370-megawatt plant can power up to 370,000 average-sized homes.

Hruby, whose hilltop home sits about a mile from the plant, thinks the government is meddling too much.

“With all these increased government regulations, it's not going to get any better for people working at these types of plants unless companies spend beaucoup bucks. I'm concerned about the future economy for younger generations,” Hruby said.

Andrew Gill, whose home sits along Route 837 in the shadow of the plant, said he feels for workers and their families but is glad he'll no longer have to power-wash his yellow-sided house on a weekly basis. He won't miss the round-the-clock noise, either.

“It's going to be a lot quieter around here, that's for sure,” Gill, 40, said as he fed his chickens.

Aside from the constant hum of the plant, Gill said he fights a never-ending battle against fly ash, the airborne residue of burning coal. At least 9 to 5 on weekdays, large trucks haul ash from the plant to a hillside dump. As the trucks whiz past, Gill said, ash drifts toward his home.

“This is where it lands,” Gill said, swiping a finger on his siding, then showing the blackened tip.

Fly ash speckles Jeff Heidelbach's home, though he says it isn't as bad as it used to be. Years ago, the ash prompted him to get rid of a swimming pool.

“We tolerate it because it provides jobs,” Heidelbach, 61, said.

When the plant stops producing energy, Heidelbach said, “I don't want to have an old dinosaur to gawk at for the next 10 to 15 years. If they're not going to use it, they should tear it down or sell it to someone who can do something that benefits the community.”

Union doesn't collect much tax money from the plant, Nigon said. The township receives a combined $1,513 in public utility realty taxes yearly from Mitchell and other utilities. Nigon couldn't say how much Union receives in earned income and local services taxes.

Robert Leach, 40, the son of a longtime Mitchell worker, lives near the plant. He fishes occasionally in the area; warm water discharged from the plant attracts catfish, bass and other fish in the Mon, though he won't eat what he catches because he worries about pollution.

“I feel sorry for everyone losing their jobs,” he said. “It sucks in the short term, but I think it's good news for the long-term future of the environment.”

Masontown, Fayette County

Mayor Toni Petrus knows the importance of blue-collar jobs to the small town once known as the “Hub of the Klondike Coal Region.”

Petrus' father, Walter Scarton, 91, and her late husband, Ron, mined coal. Her son-in-law, Frank McLaughlin, is an electrician at the coal-fired Hatfield's Ferry Power Station.

Such jobs could disappear when FirstEnergy closes its power plant in Greene County, just across the Monongahela River.

“What worries me is if it starts to impact the coal industry,” Petrus said. “... If they're not using the coal, it's going to have a domino effect.”

Hatfield and its billowing clouds of steam have “been such a mainstay all these years,” council President Harry Lee said.

Patricia Lubits-Gump said economic forces transformed Masontown during six decades. When she left in 1953 to attend Beaver College, the town prospered in the post-World War II boom.

“Most of our families were coal miners, with the mines all around us,” said Lubits-Gump, 77. “On Saturday evenings, the streets would be truly packed with people. All of the stores were open. The farmers and people from the patches would come in, and they would walk along and talk and shop. It was delightful.”

Lubits-Gump earned a doctorate in education at Temple University and settled in Montgomery County to teach and write textbooks. She frequently traveled home to visit family, and moved back in 1997.

By then, the town's population had dropped from its peak of nearly 5,000 in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. By 2010, it had dwindled to 3,450.

“Everything has changed,” Lubits-Gump said.

Once-bustling businesses — bakeries, grocery stores, department stores, restaurants, doctor's offices — are gone.

Dave Howard, 64, has watched the changes from the counter of Howard's Market on North Main Street, a grocery store his grandfather started in 1929. The last such store, aside from Dollar General, it sells everything from toothpaste to transmission fluid to cut-to-order meat.

Howard recalls a flood of newcomers in the late 1960s.

“When they built the power plant, this place was jumpin',” he said. “You couldn't find a place to live, or stay, with the workers coming in.”

Howard foresees less business if coal mines that feed the plant cut production. “It's definitely going to hurt. It's not going to be good.”

Petrus said FirstEnergy's news is just the latest in a series of setbacks.

The state withdrew plans to build a prison in neighboring German Township. Then PNC closed its branch on Main Street. This summer, the Diocese of Greensburg closed All Saints Regional School.

“Our part of Fayette County, they've killed it,” Petrus said.

Robert Whalen, president of Utility Workers of America System Local 102, said the average wage for electricians, welders and skilled workers at Hatfield is $30 per hour. The union and company are working to place employees in comparable jobs, he said.

“It's going to have a huge impact on their ability to earn wages and provide for families if we're not successful in getting them placed in FirstEnergy,” Whalen said. They live throughout Western Pennsylvania and in West Virginia.

“Once all that work goes away, it will have a huge impact all over. It isn't only going to be the folks who work in that plant ... but all the contractors who work there, too,” he said.

Yet, some foresee promise and opportunity. Lubits-Gump points to a car dealership, restaurants, an antiques shop and new auto repair shop.

George Franks, 68, has run family-owned Masontown Trophy & Embroidery for 37 years. He said he did well by changing with the times, selling sports products that customers can't find elsewhere, such as personalized trophies.

“You have to offer a service to survive,” Franks said. “Just selling bats and gloves, I can't compete with Wal-Mart.”

Franks wants to stem the job losses by working with the nonprofit Masontown Matters and Fayette County Career and Technical School to open a business incubator in a building he owns on Main Street.

He believes people who offer a service — carpenters, plumbers, electricians, graphic designers — have a better chance for success.

“Is this going to work?” Franks pondered. “I can't tell you if it's going to work. But if you don't try, nothing happens.”

Tom Fontaine and Liz Zemba are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Fontaine at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com. Reach Zemba at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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