What Happens After the Coal Plant Closes?
Roger Titchenell, mayor of Albright, West Virginia, a coal-plant town that lost its coal plant, isn't angry at the Environmental Protection Agency. He's not mad at FirstEnergy Corp. for closing the town's 63-year-old plant, blaming new EPA regulations. Titchenell's frustration is more mundane: He just wishes the company had paid for the new park fence he says it promised when it left town.
Sometime this summer, the EPA will issue regulations that limit carbon dioxide emissions from power generation, pushing more of the country's 400 coal-fired power plants to close. The environmental and health benefits are undeniable, and overwhelming. The economic consequences for towns like Albright, where a coal plant can be one of the largest employers, are harder to predict. The agency's opponents warn of severe economic hardship. The experience of towns that have already been through a plant closing suggests something more complicated.
In February 2012, FirstEnergy said the EPA's rules on mercury emissions made three of its oldest and least efficient plants in West Virginia too expensive to keep operating, and they would be shut down by September. The local congressman, Republican David McKinley, called the news "devastating," and said the closings would leave the plants' 105 workers unemployed. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin called it "another example of how the EPA is costing us good jobs in West Virginia," adding that "individuals, families and communities are forever changed by their short-sighted decisions."
Last month, I visited each of the three towns where FirstEnergy had closed its plants, to see whether, three years later, those predictions had come to pass.
I started in Albright, three hours west of Washington and just below the Pennsylvania state line, a place that doesn't seem to have much left to lose. In 1985, the Cheat River, which flows between Albright and the power plant, overran its banks, washing away all but 22 of the town's 132 houses. The tightly packed trailer homes that took their place have started to pucker; the red two-story schoolhouse is abandoned and peeling. At the two-room town hall neither Titchenell nor Sandra Gray, the town clerk, seemed sure how many people live in Albright, guessing between 150 and 200. "Sixty-five percent of them are on welfare," Titchenell said.
But he didn't hang Albright's troubles on FirstEnergy closing its plant. Titchenell, who worked for 22 years in a coal mine and became mayor in 2013, said FirstEnergy never paid taxes to the town, because it's outside town boundaries. According to FirstEnergy, the plant paid $380,000 in state taxes in 2011. It doesn't seem like much of that money rubbed off on the town.
Most of the plant's workers got transferred to other facilities, and many of them didn't live in Albright to begin with. And the town had few businesses that stood to lose revenue, because it had so few businesses to begin with; Gray said its only remaining enterprises are an auto body shop and a Kwik Stop on the highway leaving town.
Titchenell's only complaint was that FirstEnergy hadn't followed through with a promise to upgrade the park across the road from the town hall, to enclose its swings and a slide, two covered benches and a flagpole. "They was supposed to give us some money," he said. "We was supposed to build a fence with it." (A spokeswoman for FirstEnergy, Stephanie Walton, said the company had talked to Albright about building the fence, but the town had never followed up.)
An hour's drive west of Albright, along the Monongahela River 85 miles from Pittsburgh, the tended gardens and white houses of Rivesville make the same point from the other direction: Just as having a power plant next door isn't enough to pull a town out of poverty, losing a plant isn't enough to quickly throw a town into poverty either.
Three years after FirstEnergy shuttered Rivesville's power plant, a red brick hulk that opened in 1919, the town of about 1,000 people appears to be doing fine, with a day care, a pharmacy, a dentist's office, a beauty parlor and two convenience stores on its main street. There's a strip of abandoned storefronts near the plant. But drive a little further and Rivesville feels, if not prosperous, then pleasant and stable.
Rivesville handled the plant's closing in part because it was a long time coming, and the town planned accordingly. The mayor, Jim Hershman, started working at the plant in 1986, when it had about 90 employees. The aging equipment made the plant less profitable over time, and when FirstEnergy closed it in 2012 it had just a dozen or so workers left, producing power only when demand was high. "It wasn't just, you went to bed, woke up tomorrow and the plant's shut down," he said.
Hershman wasn't there when the plant closed; he had retired on disability in 2010, and became mayor the next year. Those who were there at the end were offered a spot at one of two nearby plants, Hershman told me. He said no local businesses shut down as a result of the closing.
There was a hit to the town's tax base. At its peak, the plant was paying about $130,000 into the town's annual budget, about half the total, Hershman told me. His predecessor, sensing the inevitable, introduced a 1 percent town sales tax to generate new revenue, which covered about half the money the plant had brought in. To make up the rest, Rivesville added a $5 surcharge to monthly water bills, and trimmed benefits for its seven employees. The town used to pave two roads a year; that had to be cut back. "It was something the town had to adjust to," he said.
My last stop was in the Ohio River Valley, three hours north of Charleston, where FirstEnergy closed a coal plant on Willow Island that had been running since 1949. Willow Island had been in the news before: In 1978, the building of a newer coal plant next door, the Pleasants Power Station, led to the deadliest construction accident in U.S. history, when a crane fell into a 166-foot cooling tower, knocking loose the previous day's concrete, collapsing the scaffolding around it and killing 51 workers. By 2012, the Willow Island plant was just another out-of-date facility, too expensive to update for the EPA's new rules.
The closest town to Willow Island is Belmont, a collection of one- and two-story homes with two churches and a middle school, along with a few rows of trailer homes tucked behind a gas station. Unlike Albright, and more than Rivesville, Belmont has the marks of middle class: The curbs are freshly painted, and many of the homes are brick, a few with basketball nets in the driveway and swing sets in the backyard. The town's name is written in oversize topiary letters at the edge of the river.
The mayor, John Fitzpatrick, met me in his office with two people who had retired from Willow Island: Jim Hooper and Dwaine Barnes, who between them had worked in the plant for 65 years. Both Hooper and Barnes said none of the people who worked at Willow Island lost their job; anyone who wanted to keep working got absorbed into the larger coal plant next door.
The plant's closing didn't hurt the town's finances either. Fitzpatrick told me that FirstEnergy didn't pay anything to the town to begin with; nor had the money coming from the county government been cut either. The three men couldn't think of any local businesses that had been hurt. "I wasn't even sure the plant had closed," Fitzpatrick told me.
For three places so different, the towns I visited had a few things in common. First, the federal government's argument that closing coal plants will mean better health for the people nearby didn't seem to carry much weight. Hershman said he had never heard of anyone in Rivesville getting sick because of air pollution. (The data suggest otherwise.) Fitzpatrick was a little more pointed. "It's hard for me to criticize the power plant when people are willing to pay five dollars for a pack of cigarettes," he said, "and then come to me and say, 'Doggone this plant.'"
But neither did the people I spoke with express any sentimental attachment to coal. Titchenell, the former miner, said he suffers from black lung, and needs to sleep upright because of it. The people I met in Belmont said fracking for oil and natural gas are taking over from coal as a source of new money and jobs. When Hershman says the closed plant is sitting on "a very valuable piece of property," he sounds like any other mayor, musing about the potential for newly available waterfront land.
By the time they closed, the plants in Albright, Rivesville and Willow Island had relatively few employees, which made it easier for the company to find jobs for them elsewhere. (Walton says "the vast majority" of employees who wanted to keep working did.) Larger plants have more workers, and would be more likely to lead to layoffs if they closed tomorrow.
But the plants that closed in 2012 once had large workforces too, and only slowly whittled them down as the economics of the industry changed. The EPA has said it will phase in its new requirements over the course of a decade. And even then, only some coal plants will close; the agency projects 30 percent of the country's power will still come from coal in 2030, down from 39 percent last year. If towns start planning for that change now, the way Rivesville did, its experience suggests most can find ways to survive it.
That doesn't solve the problem of places that clearly need help, whatever happens to the local coal plant. When I asked Tomblin and McKinley's offices about how their predictions from three years ago have borne out, neither acknowledged being wrong about the specific job losses, instead emphasizing the broader decline of the industry. Yet here's another thing all three towns have in common: After FirstEnergy closed its plants, the mayors said nobody from the federal or state government called to offer assistance.
That's a policy mistake. The shift from coal has cost jobs: As of April, 101,300 people worked at fossil-fuel power plants nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 percent less than a decade earlier. Part of that reflects a move to natural gas plants, which often employ fewer people per unit of energy; part reflects the transition to renewable power. (The solar industry alone already employs 50 percent more full-time workers than every U.S. coal and gas plant combined, according to its own figures.) And that doesn't include the jobs lost in coal mining, as demand falls and production moves to states where the coal is cheaper to get out of the ground.
In May, President Barack Obama's administration proposed grants to help towns that lose coal jobs. The program drew conservative griping, but if anything, there should be more of that kind of assistance, for the towns that aren't as good as Rivesville at planning ahead, or don't have as many other employers nearby as Belmont.
In other words, places like Albright. Titchenell says he still hopes to turn Albright around. "I'd like to have some kinds of businesses come into town," he told me, though he wasn't sure how. Gray, the town clerk, was less optimistic. "The mines are all closed," she told me. "There is just nothing else around here."
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