Coal Tattoo

Ignoring inconvenient facts on AEP announcement

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

The Gazette’s late publisher, Ned Chilton, was know for his criticism of what he called West Virginia’s “insipid press,” local newspapers that didn’t question the actions of local politicians and powerful institutions.

I’ve thought of this as I’ve read through the predictable follow-up from the usual characters after American Electric Power’s announcement last week that it might move up the date for closing three West Virginia power plants if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalizes new rules to reduce hazardous air pollution from such facilities.

A few examples:

— The Bluefield Daily Telegraph wrote —

One must look no further than last week’s stunning announcement from American Electric Power for further proof of the out-of-control, job-killing agenda of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

— My buddy Hoppy Kercheval at MetroNews opined

… This rogue EPA pushes ahead with regulatory zeal, either oblivious or arrogantly dismissive of the disruption it’s causing.

— The Charleston Daily Mail editorialized

The irony of having policymakers sit in air-conditioned offices and pricing air-conditioning out of the budgets of so many homes elsewhere is lost on today’s public administrators.

The really disappointing thing here, though, was that the Daily Mail’s very lengthy news story on the AEP announcement made little or no effort to explain the reasons for the EPA’s regulatory proposal. No mention of the respiratory illnesses and early deaths the rule was aimed at reducing. No mention of the huge hidden costs of continuing to rely on coal for supposed “cheap electricity.” Daily Mail readers had to wait for George Hohmann’s column in the Sunday paper to get a mention of this, and even then it was noted only as kind of an odd afterthought in describing the AEP news release:

… The utility didn’t mention the health and environmental benefits to be derived from the EPA rules. Others will make that case.

Those “others” certainly won’t be any of our state’s elected officials or major political figures. They were falling all over themselves to get out press releases depicting the AEP announcement as another result of the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

Sen. Joe Manchin’s incredibly aggressive press shop put out not one, but two press releases (see here and here) about the AEP situation.  And they called our news room, just to be sure we got them. Oddly, neither press release explains exactly how many premature deaths or cases of childhood asthma Sen. Manchin believes are acceptable to prop up coal-fired power plants that were build during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, called on the EPA to “stop hurting West Virginia families,” saying:

Today’s announcement by AEP reinforces the belief that the EPA is out of touch with the economic impact of their overreaching regulations … the EPA’s inflexible approach that is driving our Nation’s energy policy is wrong, and it will permanently damage industries, businesses, and cause significant negative impacts on consumers and workers. It needs to stop.

I’m starting to wonder if Sen. Jay Rockefeller is still a Friend of Coal, because he hasn’t yet issued a news release blasting EPA for all of this …

Missing from the bluster from other political leaders are some crucial facts. Among them:

— As we pointed out in our Gazette story,  these plants had already been targeted by AEP for closure between 2017 and 2020. The plan announced in response to EPA’s regulatory proposal would have simply moved up those timelines, to Dec. 31, 2014. And, as reported in the Columbus Dispatch, at least two of these plants had already been selected for very limited use by the utility:

Pat Hemlepp, an AEP spokesman, said the national recession lowered demand for electricity, making the generators too expensive to run year-round.

The company wouldn’t say how much it expects to save. Hemlepp said the company will try to shift affected plant workers to jobs that other employees left when AEP offered early-retirement buyouts in April.

— These are hardly new rules.  Congress mandated them in 1990, and utilities have known about them — and have been fighting them — for many years since then.

— As Grist pointed out, AEP actually entered into a consent decree in 2007 with EPA and others, promising reductions in emissions from the plants named in last week’s announcement by the utility. And, as the Center for American Progress pointed out, AEP had planned to close one plant in Mason County long before EPA made its regulatory proposal public. The center noted:

The plants on the AEP chopping block are large emitters of toxic air pollution. For instance, in 2009, the Welsh Plant in Pittsburg, Texas emitted 462 pounds of mercury, according to the 2009 Toxic Release Inventory program run by EPA. (see attached spreadsheet for links to all TRI power plant data) 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.

— And, as our story pointed out, AEP’s public relations people were backing off their press release a bit in the wake of all of the noise made by politicians:

“These units are already slated for retirement anyway, so we don’t want to overstate this,” said Jeri Matheney, a spokeswoman for AEP’s Appalachian Power subsidiary in Charleston.

And while about 240 jobs could be lost at the three West Virginia plants, Matheney said many of the employees in those posts could take retirement before 2014 or be transferred to other positions within AEP. Currently, 62 people work at the Kanawha River Plant, 120 at Phillip Sporn and 60 at Kammer, Matheney said.

But then again, could American Electric Power CEO Michael Morris  not have expected exactly the sort of reaction his company’s press release got from political leaders and the press in this region? Or does Morris simply want to have it both ways … he can issue a press release that helps beat the drum against EPA, and at the same time brag in his company’s corporate reports about how closing down again coal-fired generation will help AEP be a leader in dealing with global warming.