Ohio Coal Closures: A business decision that pays dividends for neighboring communities and Lake Erie's fish

Good news for human health and a clean energy economy out of Ohio today: an announcement that FirstEnergy is closing units at six of the nastiest coal plants in the nation. Four of the plants sit on the shores of an endangered Lake Erie; taking a significant toll on the nearby communities and Great Lakes in general. 

The Bay Shore and Lake Shore plants are particularly emblematic of the problems and unintended impacts of coal in the region. Probably not surprisingly, NRDC has been actively fighting them; in fact a pair of attorneys from my office were all set to spend the next month in Columbus to handle a mountain of depositions. This may be great news for their home life, but it is unequivocally fantastic for plenty of other reasons. Sadly, there are plenty of folks with axes to grind that will spin this in quite the opposite way, despite the fact that these plants have been on their way to the scrap heap for a while now. Don't believe the hype: this is a business decision, nothing more.

In addition to the immediate environmental benefits of this decision, I’m encouraged by two things. First, the Company seems to be taking efforts to help the more 500 workers who will be impacted by the decision. Second, the Company has made investments in clean energy that will ultimately create more jobs in Ohio and the region, buying 100MW of Iberdrola’s massive Blue Creek Wind Farm in Ohio’s Van Wert and Paulding counties. And I have encouraging reports from NRDC’s advocate who deals with FirstEnergy in Ohio that they are finally taking energy efficiency seriously. And as we have covered extensively on OnEarth and Switchboard, the state’s clean energy manufacturing sector is just beginning to boom.

But back to the plants... FirstEnergy temporarily idled its Lake Shore plant near Cleveland in 2010 because of lower regional power demand (due both to the unfortunate Great Recession and the entirely positive shift toward more energy efficiency) and the increasing costs of running a plant built in 1916 still using a 50 year old boiler. The plant was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act and the company had avoided putting major new environmental controls on it for decades, even as it emitted a horrific plume of toxins and particulate matter on the surrounding community. The facility a target of the environmental justice movement for years because of its outsized impact on the African American community.

FirstEnergy’s nearly-60-year-old Bay Shore plant shares many of Lake Shore’s problems. But in addition to spewing toxic air pollution and climate changing-CO2 the facility is also one of the nation’s most efficient fish-killing machines (my colleagues have aptly compared it to the classic Dan Aykroyd “Bass-o-Matic” skit from Saturday Night Live). Located at the confluence of the Maumee River and Lake Erie, the plant sits astride one of the world’s most prolific fish spawning areas. Its water intake system and scalding water kill 46 million fish and 2 billion fish larvae annually, taking a significant bite out of the region’s $1.4 billion recreational and commercial fishing economy. Just to put the numbers into perspective, the State of Ohio says that the plant’s aquatic annihilation totals more fish than all the other plants in the state combined.

Also distressing, scalding hot water releases from both plants may very well be helping to kill the Lake they sit on. Lake Erie, once a symbol of the healing power of the Clean Water Act, is being crippled by massive algae blooms so large that they can be seen from space. No doubt, the releases from farm fertilizer and water treatment plants provide the food, but the hot water dumped into the shallow Lake likely makes conditions even more ideal for the dangerous algae, which is a threat to human health and has even killed hapless dogs that lapped up some of the tainted water.

Make no mistake, these plants were operating well-beyond their intended lifespan for a reason: it has been cheap to be dirty. And utilities have taken advantage, holding off on modernizations so that the Clean Air Act’s provisions would not kick in to force older plants like these to be retrofitted with modern pollution controls to protect the surrounding communities. While most of the nation’s utilities have been way out in front of decade-delayed updates to the Clean Air Act, some clung to their old and inefficient plants to ring the last dregs of profit from their smokestacks. Now that the EPA has finally taken action to better regulate Mercury and Hazardous Air Pollutants (which will produce benefits well in excess of the regulation’s cost---EPA guesses the annual cost of complying with the new rules will be $9.6 billion, compared to a total health benefit as high as $90 billion in 2016), FirstEnergy has made the high-level corporate decision to shut these plants down rather than retrofit them.

For the people of Ohio (and the fish of Lake Erie), this is a big day. As I look south from downtown Chicago, I can only hope that the folks managing our town’s similarly toxic coal plants will come to a long-due similar decision so that the same toll can be stopped in our town.