Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018
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FirstEnergy plans to close remaining coal-fired power plants by mid-2022

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FirstEnergy Solutions Corp. will shut down its remaining coal-fired power plants by June 1, 2022, including its massive W.H. Sammis plant along the Ohio River near Steubenville, Ohio.

The Sammis plant at one time was America’s second-largest emitter of lung-damaging sulfur dioxide and was the subject of a landmark lawsuit over air pollution less than 20 years ago. It underwent $1.7 billion of improvements aimed at bringing its air emissions down to a healthy level only a decade ago.

First Energy’s closures announcement was made in a news release Wednesday by FES, a subsidiary of Akron-based FirstEnergy’s Corp.

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FirstEnergy’s W.H. Sammis plant in Stratton, Ohio.

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FES and another FirstEnergy subsidiary, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., filed for bankruptcy last spring in hopes of having the parent company retool itself as one focused on electricity transmission. It for decades has done that as well as electricity generation.

“Our decision to retire the fossil-fueled plants was every bit as difficult as the one we made five months ago to deactivate our nuclear assets,” Don Moul, FES Generation Companies president and chief nuclear officer, said in a written statement. “The action in no way reflects on the dedication and work ethic of our employees, nor on the strong support shown by their union leaders and the communities where the plants are located.”

The plants employ a combined 550 workers. There are about two dozen other coal-fired power plants operating in Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Much like the future closures of the Davis-Besse and other nuclear plants that FES announced in March, the company blamed upcoming closures of its coal-fired power plants on an inability to compete against strong market forces favoring natural gas.

The advent of horizontal fracturing, or “fracking” of shale, upended the nation’s electricity market about a decade ago. New fracking techniques unleashed vast deposits of previously inaccessible oil and natural gas reserves across the world, including the Marcellus and Utica shale regions in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

The latest coal-fired plants announced for closure are Eastlake 6 in Eastlake, Ohio, and Bruce Mansfield Units 1-3 in Shippingport, Pa., west of Pittsburgh. Those plants are to be closed by June 1, 2021, along with the W.H. Sammis Diesel plant. The W.H. Sammis coal-fired Units 5-7 are to be closed by June 1, 2022.

They join the list of planned nuclear closures announced earlier, including Davis-Besse east of Toledo by May 31, 2020; Beaver Valley Unit 1 west of Pittsburgh and the Perry plant east of Cleveland by May 31, 2021, and Beaver Valley Unit 2 by October 31, 2021.

President Trump earlier this summer directed U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry to come up with a plan for subsidies or another form of a bailout to stave off planned closures of more nuclear and coal-fired power plants.

Dick Munson of the Environmental Defense Fund, a FirstEnergy critic, said  the company’s announcement Wednesday seemed “like just another lobbying plea by FirstEnergy, threatening again to close uneconomic power plants unless they get a massive bailout from ratepayers and taxpayers.”

PJM Interconnection, which operates the 13-state regional electric grid that includes Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, will initiate a standard review of “potential effects on the transmission system” from the planned closures, Jeff Shields, PJM spokesman, said.

“The PJM system today has adequate power supplies and healthy reserves in operation, with diverse generation resources that include coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydroelectric, solar, wind, and other renewable sources,” he said.

The generation mix can be found online here.   

In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued another FirstEnergy subsidiary, Ohio Edison Co., over what the regulator considered excessive air pollution released from its Sammis plant, which Ohio Edison operated at the time.

The plant, located along the Ohio River near the Ohio-West Virginia border, was cited for numerous Clear Air Act violations.

In 2003, it was listed as the nation's second-largest emitter of sulfur dioxide, a lung irritant that can permanently damage the respiratory system.

The U.S. EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice Department have described the case as a landmark for utilities.

New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were co-plaintiffs and were among several states in the Northeast that claimed they were unable to meet Clean Air Act requirements because of migrating pollutants generated by Ohio coal plants.

The case was the centerpiece of a $1.1 billion deal FirstEnergy struck with the government in 2005 to settle Clean Air Act violations at multiple plants. It was the second-largest sum a utility ever agreed to pay to settle such violations, and the second-largest civil fine ever imposed on the utility sector.

The historic settlement required a modernization of Sammis and FirstEnergy’s coal-fired Burger plant in Ohio's Belmont County, as well as its Eastlake and Mansfield plants.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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