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FirstEnergy to close power station in Williamsport

Local plant, which employs about 40, one of six coal-fired facilities to be retired

Potomac Edison spokesman says power distribution won't be affected

January 26, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • The R. Paul Smith Power Station in Williamsport, which first went on line in 1927, will be closed by FirstEnergy Corp. due on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which were recently finalized, and other environmental regulations, the company announced Thursday.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT — FirstEnergy will close the R. Paul Smith Power Station in Williamsport by Sept. 1 because of the cost of complying with federal environmental regulations that go into effect in 2015, a company official announced Thursday.

The plant is one of six older coal-fired power plants in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio that FirstEnergy will close due to theU.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which recently were finalized, and other environmental regulations, according to a company news release.

It has 40 full-time employees who might consider other job opportunities within the company, FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said. Plant employees were informed of the upcoming closing at 7 a.m. Thursday, he said.

Eligible employees can take advantage of a retirement benefit offered to employees age 55 and older, the release said. Existing severance benefits will apply to eligible workers.

Closing the six plants will directly affect 529 employees, the release said.

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However, the local plant’s closing will not affect power distribution in the area, FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Meyers said.

FirstEnergy is the parent company of Potomac Edison, which serves just under 249,000 customers in Maryland — including 50,000 in Washington County — and 100,000 in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said Thursday that the plant’s closing “does not come as a complete surprise to us.”

“We knew the new EPA rules could prompt retirement of old coal-fired (plants), which, for a variety of reasons, have not installed state-of-the-art pollution controls,” Apperson said.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Environmental Integrity Project, which have legally challenged the plant’s emissions compliance, issued a news release applauding the closure.

“FirstEnergy made a responsible decision to retire an old and dirty power plant,” Jen Peterson, an attorney with the Integrity Project, said in a statement.

Costly upgrade
The Smith plant hasn’t been operated much during the past three years, and company officials didn’t anticipate it being used much in the near future due to soft electrical demand in a struggling economy, Durbin said.

The cost to comply with the new federal regulations would be in the millions of dollars, he said.

With the 2015 deadline to comply with the federal regulations, such a large investment in an older, small plant that doesn’t operate often doesn’t make sense, he said.

There are a number of different technologies that could be installed at older plants to comply with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, also known as MATS, Durbin said. One example is a scrubber, he said.

The plant, which has a coal-fired boiler and a fuel-oil fired boiler, hasn’t generated power recently but has been run within the past year, he said.

But Durbin couldn’t say when the plant last generated power, noting that  such information would be considered proprietary.

The Smith plant went online in 1927 and was replaced by a new unit in 1947, according to a Historic American Engineering Record report in the Library of Congress and online at the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/history/hdp/samples/HAER/MD-23.pdf.

Off the grid
FirstEnergy announced the plant closings Thursday because it needed to inform the PJM Interconnection about plants that will not be available for a spring energy auction, Durbin said.

PJM bids on power and needs to know which plants are generating power so it can meet anticipated electrical demand in the region, he said.

FirstEnergy was also required to notify the EPA, he said.

When the plant along the Potomac River is closed, Durbin said FirstEnergy will make sure the site is secure and environmentally safe.

He said company officials would look at whether remediation was needed when and if future development opportunities — within or outside the company — arise for the land. A study would have to be conducted to determine what unnatural components may be on the site, he said.

The other FirstEnergy plants to be closed are the Bay Shore Plant, Units 2-4, in Oregon, Ohio; the Eastlake Plant in Eastlake, Ohio; the Ashtabula Plant, in Ashtabula, Ohio; the Lake Shore Plant in Cleveland; and the Armstrong Power Station in Adrian, Pa.

Health standards
The new national standards are the first to protect Americans from power-plant emissions such as mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide, according to a December EPA news release.

The EPA estimates the standards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms a year, as well as lead to about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year, the EPA release said.

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