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3 W.Va. plants latest to close under utility restructuring

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three FirstEnergy power plants in West Virginia will close in September in the latest move by a utility to shutter decades-old units that can't meet new federal air quality standards that limit mercury and other toxic pollutants.

Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy said it would shut down the Albright Power Station in Preston County, the Rivesville Power Station in Marion County and the Willow Island Power Station in Pleasants County.

Together, seven boilers at the three plants have electric generating capacity of about 660 megawatts, about the equivalent of a medium-sized modern coal plant.

All three facilities date back to the 1940s and 1950s. They were not equipped with the latest pollution control devices, and FirstEnergy used all three in recent years on a very limited basis to provide power in times of peak demand.

James R. Haney, president of West Virginia operations for FirstEnergy, cited high costs to implement the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards as the reason for his company's action.

FirstEnergy said 105 employees at the plants are affected, but that some will be considered for openings within the company or may accept special retirement packages.

The EPA air toxics rule has become a new focus for industry officials, coalfield business groups and regional political leaders who complain the Obama administration is waging a "war on coal" aimed at shutting down all mining.

"This is another example of how the EPA is costing us good jobs in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a prepared statement.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson says the rule was needed to cut emissions of mercury and toxic air pollutants like arsenic and cyanide. EPA estimates the new standards will prevent up to 96 premature deaths in West Virginia, while creating up to $790 million in health benefits in 2016.

Also, EPA officials note that proven pollution controls are already available -- and in use at more than half of the nation's power plants -- to meet the new limits.

FirstEnergy, for example, has announced no plans to close three of its much larger plants in West Virginia, Fort Martin Power Station in Monongalia County, Harrison Power Station north of Clarksburg, and Pleasants Power Station, located adjacent to Willow Island.

Each of those facilities has nearly twice the generating capacity of the three plants targeted for closure combined. Each has been outfitted with expensive scrubbers that, while designed to cut sulfur dioxide emissions, help reduce air toxics as well.

"When the older coal-fired plants are retired and removed from FirstEnergy's competitive and regulated generating fleet, nearly 100 percent of the power provided will come from resources that are non- or low-emitting, including nuclear, hydro, pumped-storage hydro, natural gas and scrubbed coal units," FirstEnergy said in a prepared statement.

Last month, the West Virginia Sierra Club sponsored a meeting in Preston County, to try to begin a discussion among local citizens and FirstEnergy about the Albright plant's future, the impact of a potential closure, and other economic opportunities for the area.

FirstEnergy officials did not attend, because the company had not yet announced a final decision on the facility.

"Our goal was to engage FirstEnergy in a discussion about beginning a transition to cleaner energy sources," said the Sierra Club's Jim Kotcon. "There is a lot of concern there. FirstEnergy is a major taxpayer in the county."

Kotcon said the meeting was modeled in part after work the Sierra Club did that led to a deal last year with TransAlta to phase out Washington State's only coal-fired power plant and create a $60 million fund to help the community there transition away from economic reliance on the facility.

"We think something like that has to happen in a lot of areas," Kotcon said. "We see a continued decision to reduce use of coal-fired electricity as the health impacts become more obvious.

Kotcon noted that FirstEnergy's closure date for the three West Virginia plants, as well as six other plants in Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania, was Sept. 1, 2012, two years before the first compliance dates in EPA's new air toxics rule.

FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said his company chose the closer closure date because it couldn't justify additional capital expenditures for maintenance and other projects at the West Virginia plants if they were going to close in a few years anyway.

But when American Electric Power announced similar plant closures in West Virginia, it set the deadline as Dec. 31, 2014, when the EPA rules were expected to kick in.

Kotcon said public officials and companies in the coalfields need to give workers and communities more time to ease such transitions as coal production drops and more plants move away from coal. "It's important to being the path toward transition so we don't end up with more communities where a company just announces they are closing a plant," Kotcon said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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