American Electric Power Takes Workers Hostage to Stop Pollution Controls

By CAP’s Daniel J. Weiss, Valeri Vasquez

Yesterday, American Electric Power announced that it would close 21 coal fired electricity units rather than makes investments to reduce their toxic air pollution under the forthcoming EPA reduction requirements.

AEP is threatening to shut down these plants to stoke Congressional opposition to EPA’s efforts to reduce toxic air pollution from coal fired power plants. So far, several legislators have risen to the bait, including Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV). Both have again attacked EPA for attempting to protect children and others from cancer causing air pollution.

AEP would prefer to shutter these plants because it claims that the cost of reducing the arsenic, lead, mercury, acid gases and other toxic pollutants are prohibitive. What AEP did not say is that the cost of cleanup is too much because these units are very old — 50 years old on average. (See attached spread sheet) One of the units was built during World War II, and the newest one was completed during the Carter Administration. Most of the other units were built in the 1950’s.

AEP’s announcement is also somewhat misleading because it had already planned to close 5 units at the Phillip Sporn Plant in New Haven, West Virginia. According to Source Watch,

In October 2010, Ohio Power Co. filed an application with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio for the approval of a December 2010 closure of the coal-fired Philip Sporn Power Plant unit 5…In September 2009, Appalachian Power filed an integrated resource plan (IRP) in Virginia that projected a 2010 shutdown for Sporn unit 5. The same IRP projected that Sporn units 1–4, with 580 MW of total capacity, would be retired in 2018.

In other words, AEP planned to close this plant five months before EPA proposed toxic air pollution reduction requirements for coal fired utilities. Yet it has included closing the Sporn units under “AEP’s current plan for compliance with the rules as proposed includes permanently retiring the following coal-fueled power plants.”

The Welsh Plant in Pittsburg, Texas is among the most toxic to public health that will close. The plant emitted 462 pounds of mercury, a recognized neurotoxin. This level is second only to the 53 year old Kammer Plant in Moundsville, West Virginia, which during the same year spewed 364 pounds of mercury. This heavy metal causes severe developmental disabilities, deafness, and blindness in cases of prenatal and infant exposure. The chemical can lower fertility rates and raise chances of heart disease in adults.

AEP’s aging power plants flood surrounding communities with a deadly list of other toxic substances, as well. The Big Sandy Plant contributed over 1,300 pounds of cancer-causing arsenic to the air over Louisa, Kentucky, in 2009.

In 2009, the 21 AEP units marked for closing pumped nearly 1,200 pounds of mercury into the air. (See the attached spreadsheet for links to the Toxic Relief Inventory data on these pollutants.) They also emitted 3,842 of arsenic, which is used for rat poison. These plants emitted nearly 1,600 pounds of lead, which causes learning disabilities in children as well as organ failure. Most shockingly, these 21 plants spew 4.7 million pounds of acid gases. The American Lung Association reports that these gases trigger “irritation to skin, eye, nose throat, breathing passages.”

AEP acknowledges that “jobs would be created from the installation of emissions reduction equipment.” In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that “AEP, whose utility operations stretch from Texas to Ohio, said high demands for labor and materials could drive the potential capital investment higher owing to a constrained time allowed to make changes required under the plan.” In other words, the reduction to toxic air pollution will drive capital investment in aging power plants, which will create jobs.

This has been borne out by an analysis by University of Massachusetts for CERES of the net job impact of the air transport and utility air toxics rules. It found that there would be significant “construction, installation, & professional job gains over 5 years” from capital expenditures to reduce these pollutants. In addition, most of the AEP affected states would experience a net increase in operation and maintenance jobs too.

StateConstruction, installation, & professional job gains over 5 yearsNet Operation and Maintenance jobsIndiana95,193850Kentucky31,477(107)Ohio76,240(407)Virginia123,014856West Virginia32,25392Total358,1771,284Source: CERES

There will certainly be some job transitions, and the workers affected by this should receive assistance with job placement, retraining, and education. At the same time, AEP is making the same tired arguments used by polluters over the past 40 years to frighten legislators into opposing pollution safeguards. Twenty years ago, the utility industry predicted that reducing acid rain pollution would spark horrific rate increases. In fact, utility rates were lower in most states in 2006 compared to 1989. Acid rain polluters also predicted huge job losses that didn’t occur either. And the cost of cutting acid rain pollution was one-quarter of EPA’s prediction.

A half dozen major utilities — including Exelon, the nation’s largest — believe that the air toxics reductions from coal fired utilities plants are affordable, and will have little impact on reliability. CEO’s from Exelon, PG&E, Calpine, NextEra Energy, Public Service Enterprise Group, Constellation Energy Group, and others wrote in the Wall St. Journal that:

For over a decade, companies have recognized that the industry would need to install controls to comply with the act’s air toxicity requirements, and the technology exists to cost effectively control such emissions, including mercury and acid gases.

To suggest that plants are retiring because of the EPA’s regulations fails to recognize that lower power prices and depressed demand are the primary retirement drivers. The units retiring are generally small, old and inefficient. These retirements are long overdue.

Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.

AEP is holding its employees hostage in order to continue polluting. AEP’s plans are an economic kidnap note that reads: “let me keep poisoning our air and water if you ever want to see these workers jobs again.” The ransom AEP demands is continued mercury, arsenic and other cancer-causing pollution.

The President and Congress should disregard AEP’s phony threats by allowing EPA to protect our children, seniors, and everyone else from deadly toxic air pollution from coal fired power plants.

By CAP’s Daniel J. Weiss, Valeri Vasquez