The next coal-burning power plant in the Ohio Valley to close could be within 50 miles of downtown Huntington. It wouldn’t be due to market conditions but instead because of environmental regulations.
Last week the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Lightstone Generation LLC, the owner of the Gen. James M. Gavin Power Plant at Cheshire, Ohio, to stop dumping coal ash into unlined storage ponds and to accelerate cleanup of the site.
It’s the first instance of the EPA following through on its plan announced earlier this year to prevent power plants from placing coal ash in unlined ponds after the deadline for stopping such dumping has passed, so it’s not like this order was a surprise.
The Gavin plant is in or near the village of Cheshire in Gallia County, Ohio. It is one of the largest coal-burning power plants in the United States. Last year, it burned about 5.56 million tons of coal. About 5.4 million tons of that was refined coal, which is coal with a mix of chemicals added to reduce pollutants when burned.
Coal ash contains small amounts of mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals whose presence in groundwater is considered an environmental hazard.
“For too long, communities already disproportionately impacted by high levels of pollution have been burdened by improper coal ash disposal,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Friday, according to the Associated Press. “Today’s action reaffirms that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater.”
As a practical matter, the plant may have to pause or even cease operations next year to comply with the order, according to the AP.
A spokesperson for Lightstone Generation LLC could not be reached by the AP for comment. The company is a joint venture of private-equity firms ArcLight Capital Partners and Blackstone Group.
Gavin was built in the late 1960s and early 1970s by American Electric Power. Because of its size and the amount of pollutants it emits, Gavin has been the target of environmental protests and enforcement. In 1984, two activists from Greenpeace gained entry to the plant site and climbed to the top of its tall smokestack to protest acid rain. About 20 years ago, AEP had problems with emission reductions that led to its buying out most residential properties in Cheshire. The village’s population has declined from about 250 then to about 125 now.
AEP sold the Gavin plant to Lightstone Generation in 2016 as part of its strategy to divest its generating assets in Ohio.
It’s not just Gavin that is facing pressure from environmental regulators. According to the AP, the EPA has proposed denial of requests for extensions of coal ash permits by several other power plants, including the Clifty Creek power plant along the Ohio River at Madison, Indiana, and the Ottumwa Generating Station along the Des Moines River at Ottumwa, Iowa. The H.L. Spurlock plant along the Ohio River near Maysville, Kentucky, is required to repair groundwater monitoring as a condition for continued operation of its coal ash pond, the EPA said.
Coal-fired power plants have anchored local economies throughout the Ohio Valley and have provided electricity to most of Appalachia. At present they are fighting on at least three fronts in their war for survival. Ever-tightening environmental regulations and deadlines are one front. Market conditions form another front; for now the relatively high price of natural gas has given them a reprieve, but that could change. Time is the third enemy. The planned lives of most coal-fired plants in this region will end in about 20 years; their owners must decide whether it’s better to invest in extending their lives or to retire them.
At stake are the economic futures of small communities such as Adams County, Ohio, which has seen two power plants retired and demolished in the past five years. A shutdown of Gavin would harm Gallia County’s tax base, just as the retirement of the Philip Sporn Plant in Mason County, West Virginia, in 2015 caused belt tightening in county services there. The upcoming construction of the Nucor steel mill there will alleviate some of that shortfall, but not every county can rely on the possibility of such investments.
The Huntington-Ashland metro area has three power plants, all of which burn natural gas. Two others are nearby in Lawrence County, Kentucky, and Scioto County, Ohio, has a hydroelectric plant attached to the Greenup Locks and Dam. The slow-motion demise of coal-fired electricity might not affect this metro area directly, but it will have an impact on smaller communities and school systems nearby.