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Transition: Lawmakers can’t protect coal forever

While many in Appalachia have been focused on the 2035 target date set by the Biden administration for a carbon pollution-free energy sector, there is another deadline approaching — federal wastewater guidelines will require coal-fired power plants to remove coal ash and heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and selenium from plant wastewater before it makes its way to waterways, by 2028.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, filings to state regulators suggest 75 coal-fired power plants will be affected across the country.

States with power plants that plan to stop using coal by 2028 are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia, Sierra Club data shows. Some plants will have to shut down, others will transition to natural gas.

“The free ride these plants have been getting is ending in a lot of ways,” said Zack Fabish, a Sierra Club lawyer. “And them choosing to retire by 2028 probably reflects the reality that a lot of the subsidies they have been getting in terms of being able to dump their wastewater into the commons, they are not going to be able to do that in the future.”

The transition to what we may face in 2035 began years ago, with the 2028 marker being just another stepping stone.

“The smallest, oldest (coal) plants were generally the ones the economics killed first. They were too expensive and too small to be retrofitted to meet new EPA standards,” said Jean Reaves Rollins, president of The C Three Group, a market research firm focused on energy infrastructure and utilities.

What West Virginia and Ohio residents have been told to fear is happening already. We do not have until 2035 to beginning planning for it.

An example given by The Associated Press comes from Pennsylvania. Two of the state’s largest coal-fired power plants, Keystone and Conemaugh outside Pittsburgh, said they will stop using coal and retire all of their generating units by Dec. 31, 2028, according to regulatory notices. Combined, the plants employ about 320 full-time workers and 170 contractors.

Policymakers cannot turn a blind eye or kick the can down the road, believing those and likely many hundreds more workers will be affected in 14 years. We must plan NOW for the realities of a transitioning economy and evolving jobs landscape. That means education and job training must change, and backward-looking political rhetoric must not be rewarded. Change will come. It always does.

Politicians cannot go on pretending they are doing what is in the best interest of those working in the coal industry if they do not help us face it.

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