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Mitchell coal-fired plant supporters dominate Public Service Commission public comment hearing

Marshall County residents, workers, union and government officials sent a clear message to West Virginia utility regulators Wednesday: Keep the Mitchell power plant open as long as possible.

Proponents of saving the Mitchell coal-fired generating facility from being closed 12 years ahead of schedule in 2028 dominated the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s videoconference hearing to take public comments on Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power plans to make federal environmental upgrades to three coal-fired generating facilities required to keep them operating through the end of their lifespans.

“Please keep it open and let these families survive,” 15-year Mitchell plant employee Edward R. Sincavich of Wheeling pleaded, one of two dozen commenters urging the commission to consider what they said would be catastrophic economic consequences for the upper Ohio Valley if the plant were to close in 2028.

The American Electric Power subsidiaries told the commission in a Dec. 23 filing that they could shutter the Mitchell facility rather than invest in it to comply with federal wastewater guidelines.

But West Virginia lawmakers argued to the commission that it’d be worth rate increases to pay for compliance work to keep the Mitchell facility from joining the swelling ranks of retired coal-fired generating plants across the state.

“I’ve heard from hundreds of constituents about saving the plant and the jobs, and not one person has expressed concern about the rate increases to me,” state Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, said.

Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power are seeking permission to perform all of the work at all of the plants, which they estimate would cost $317 million. The utilities listed potential project-related residential, commercial and industrial rate increases of 1.59%, 1.52% and 1.72%, respectively. The proposed increased project-related rates and charges would produce $23.5 million in additional annual revenue, according to the companies.

Retiring the 50-year-old Mitchell facility in 2028 could save West Virginia customers $27 million annually from 2029 to 2040, according to Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power filings with the commission. The companies have estimated that total cost savings from retiring Mitchell in 2028 and avoiding facility wastewater regulation compliance costs there could amount to $450 million over the next 30 years.

The average monthly residential bill (as measured by the residential rate for 1,000 kilowatt-hours) for American Electric Power’s West Virginia utilities escalated from $55.28 in 2006 to $138.57 in 2021 — an increase of 150% over 15 years.

“We have to keep that plant open,” Delegate Charlie Reynolds, R-Marshall, said. “If that means raising our utility bill a little bit, so be it.”

The vast majority of comments came from union miners and other workers and residents gathered together in Marshall County who took turns lobbying the commission to keep the Mitchell facility’s lifespan as long as possible.

The Mitchell facility is powered chiefly by coal mined in West Virginia, and United Mine Workers of America union officials predicted that the plant’s closure would deliver a crushing blow to the state’s already struggling coal industry and drag down the rest of the region’s economy.

“Enough is enough,” United Mine Workers of America representative Chad Francis said. “It’s time to pump the brakes on these premature plant closures. Coal communities have suffered enough throughout all of West Virginia.”

Mitchell employed 214 people at combined pay of $26.8 million in 2020.

American Electric Power retired the Kammer coal plant in Marshall County in 2015 and coal plants in Mason County in 2015 and Kanawha County in 2017. Ten conventional steam coal plants have been retired in West Virginia since 2005, and only nine remain in the state, according to Energy Information Administration data.

The Marshall County Commission urged saving the Mitchell plant from closure in seven years in a filing with the Public Service Commission in March, noting that it supplies desulfurized gypsum for the CertainTeed drywall facility in Moundsville and uses the services of hundreds of outside contractors and suppliers, including mines in Marshall and Ohio counties totaling more than 1,300 employees.

Marshall County Commissioner Michael Ferro told the commission Wednesday that losing the $2.4 million the Mitchell facility generates in annual tax revenue could cut into county funding for libraries, senior centers and charitable organizations.

Coal-fired electric power plants accounted for 91% of West Virginia’s electricity net generation in 2019. But coal accounted for just 23% of the nation’s net electricity generation overall that year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., argued that President Joe Biden’s goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 was “more aspirational than realistic.”

“The proposed rate increases to keep the Mitchell plant open pale in comparison to the devastation that would come with its closure,” McKinley said.

The only public commenter who disagreed during Wednesday’s hearing was Jim Kotcon of Morgantown, who contended that West Virginia needs to better position itself amid the nation’s energy transition — something he concluded the state can’t do if it signs off on more economically questionable investments in coal-fired power plants.

“[W]e need to stop living in the past,” Kotcon said.

The Public Service Commission got an evenly mixed response about Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power’s request in nearly 400 written comments it has received in the five months since the companies’ initial filing.

The Public Service Commission will hold an evidentiary hearing in this case immediately following a public comment video conference hearing scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday for the same utilities’ request for approval of a surcharge on customers’ bills that would allow them to recover costs from infrastructure investment projects between base rate cases.

Charleston city officials and SQP Construction Group of St. Albans hold a ceremony marking the beginning of work on Slack Plaza Wednesday afternoon. The project, expected to cost more than $3 million, includes construction of a small, covered performance stage, shade tree plantings and new walkways, among other amenities.

Setting the stage for a new Slack Plaza

Wetzel County man killed in Marion County underground coal mining accident

A Wetzel County man died in a Marion County coal mining accident overnight Wednesday.

Trenten J. Dille, 26, of Littleton, was fatally injured overnight while working in the underground section of a Marion County Coal Resources mine, according to the Governor’s Office.

The edge or rib of a coal support pillar fell and struck Dille, a section foreman, the Governor’s Office announced Wednesday afternoon. The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is investigating the incident.

Marion County Coal Resources, Inc., is a Fairview-based company controlled by St. Clairsville, Ohio-based American Consolidated Natural Resources, Inc., which could not be immediately reached for comment.

Dille leaves behind a wife and two daughters. A GoFundMe page was set up Thursday to benefit Dille’s family.

Dille’s death marks the second fatal mining accident in West Virginia this year recorded by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Justin L. Lafferty, 38, died Feb. 21 as a result of injuries sustained after he was struck in the operators’ compartment of the shuttle car he was operating by another shuttle car on Jan. 22, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

That accident occurred at the Aracoma Coal Company’s non-union Davy Branch Mine, in Logan County. The Aracoma Coal Company is controlled by Alpha Metallurgical Resources, Inc.

There have been 20 fatal mining accidents in West Virginia since the beginning of 2017, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.