Trump Bailout of Coal Plant in Gas Country Has Locals Shrugging

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Amy Coombs, who’s lived across the street from Pennsylvania’s largest coal-fired power plant for going on five decades, isn’t exactly overflowing with sentiment at its decline.

“As far as the dirt and the pollution,” she said, “I wouldn’t miss that at all.”

The Bruce Mansfield power plant looms over a house in Shippingport.

Photographer: Justin Merriman/Bloomberg

The biggest champion of the Bruce Mansfield generating plant in Shippingport is Robert E. Murray, chief executive officer of Murray Energy Corp. The coal miner is a prime supplier to the plant’s owner, FirstEnergy Corp., and both companies have lobbied the Trump administration for an industry bailout. It would raise rates for electricity customers to pay struggling coal and nuclear plants to stay open. Regulators Thursday proposed a 30-day extension to announce details of the plan, which had been expected Monday.

Robert Murray

Photographer: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times

The proposal could determine the future of Bruce Mansfield. The energy generator has provided jobs and revenue to Coombs’ hometown, population 210. It’s brought problems, too, from ash that falls like gentle snow to a leaking waste pool just up the road. Now, the plant is running at just 36 percent capacity this year, half of what it did in 2014, and employment is down to 350 thanks to cheaper and cleaner natural gas. FirstEnergy has considered selling it as the unit that runs Bruce Mansfield flirts with bankruptcy.

Part of a series on Trump’s plan to rescue coal. Read the latest here.

Ohio River

Coal is piled near the Bruce Mansfield power plant.

Photographer: Justin Merriman/Bloomberg

In this cluster of Ohio River towns a half-hour north of Pittsburgh, it’s easy to find people who share Coombs’ ambivalence toward Bruce Mansfield’s fate. The jobs are important, sure, but the region has become the country’s leading producer of natural gas, thanks to the fracking boom in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations. To locals, those jobs are just as good if not better than working in coal.

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“Why not use what we’ve got lots of?’’ said Kathryn Gregory, a nearby resident whose son works in natural gas. “We’ve got lots of gas.”

“It’s a transition,’’ said her husband, Austin. “If folks lose their jobs at Shippingport, hopefully they’d be able to find work in the gas industry.’’

Bailout Backers

Backers of the government’s proposed bailout say it would add “resilience” to America’s electric grid by rewarding coal and nuclear plants for storing fuel on site. Murray Energy wrote a letter to the Trump administration requesting emergency aid for Bruce Mansfield and other FirstEnergy plants, saying their failure could wipe out 6,500 mining jobs. He’s hailed the proposal being considered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Opponents call the proposed bailout a solution in search of a problem, saying there’s plenty of ways to back up the country’s grid without costing ratepayers billions of dollars a year. While the subsidies are being hashed out in Washington, folks in Shippingport and surrounding towns say they feel hopelessly out of the loop.

Dwight Eisenhower

Few places are as dominated by big, centralized power plants as Shippingport. It was here, in the 1950s, that the federal government teamed up with private industry to build the country’s first nuclear power plant, part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program. Two decades later, a company that later formed part of FirstEnergy unveiled the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant on the western end of town. It’s still there.

Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, built in 1812, is tucked against the Bruce Mansfield plant.

Photographer: Justin Merriman/Bloomberg

Bruce Mansfield, on Shippingport’s eastern flank, came next. Thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades over the years, the plant remains one of America’s most efficient coal facilities. When it churns at full strength, it can generate enough electricity to power 2 million homes.

“When Bruce Mansfield came in, it changed the whole world here,’’ said Bud Green, who was born in Shippingport in 1930, worked at a nearby steel mill and served half a century as borough manager.

Upsides, Downsides

Driving around town on a rainy fall morning, Green ticked off some of the biggest improvements that came with the influx of tax revenue -- paved roads, new sewer lines, better resources for the region’s schools. When the coal plant’s smokestacks interfered with residents’ TV reception, which came from antennae, Shippingport paid for everyone’s cable TV. The perk still exists, along with free garbage hauling.

Of course, it hasn’t all been great. To make way for Mansfield, they had to knock down a whole neighborhood near the Ohio River. Today, the town’s population is half of what it was when Green was growing up. Back then, he could walk to three different grocery stores. Today, he has to drive 20 minutes out of town to buy food at Walmart.

Even so, the FirstEnergy power plants account for about 85 percent of Shippingport’s $1.3 million annual budget, said Terry Ordich, the council president.

“If something were to happen to them, it’d change the whole dynamic of how we run the borough,’’ he said.

Renewable Energy

Change, however, has been coming to the region. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh’s mayor pledged to power the city solely with renewable energy by 2035. Last year, FirstEnergy, bowing to the shale boom, announced plans to get out of its coal and nuclear businesses in Pennsylvania, among other properties, by the middle of next year. Even if FirstEnergy gets FERC subsidies, it said it may still relinquish the Shippingport facilities.

“Results of federal efforts will be considered as part of the review process,” spokeswoman Stephanie Walton said by email. “No decisions have been made at this time.”

Safety Worries

Some Bruce Mansfield workers said they worry about the condition of the plant.

“It’s like you’re trying to drive a 40-year-old car, and you only do what you need to get to the next stop light,’’ said Herman Marshman, who began working at Mansfield in 1980 and spent 12 years as union local president. “You’re not trying to overhaul the vehicle to make sure it’ll last.”

In August, a gas leak at the plant killed two contractors and injured four. FirstEnergy said it’s still investigating the cause, and safety is the company’s top priority.

Seven miles up the road, part of the plant’s legacy is already being buried. There, amid rolling farmlands, is a 1,700-acre (690-hectare) site called Little Blue Run. For four decades, it’s where waste collected by Bruce Mansfield’s scrubbers was piped in. Longtime locals recall company officials in the 1970s promising that they’d one day be able to water ski on the lake. Instead, they got a steadily growing, foul-smelling, electric-blue impoundment.

The Shippingport Bridge next to the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant.

Photographer: Justin Merriman/Bloomberg

After legal action related to pollution, FirstEnergy agreed to stop filling the site last December. The company has begun capping the waste.

Back in town, Amy Coombs has long endured Bruce Mansfield’s constant droning and smell of sulfur. Increasingly, she’s hearing the loud banging that signifies the plant’s generators kicking to life after a temporary shutdown.

“It sounds like we’re being attacked,’’ Coombs said. “It would frighten anybody who didn’t know what it was. But you just get used to it.’’

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