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Obama era environmental regulations strike again, force closure of APCO’s Gorgas Steam Plant

The Obama administration has ended, but job-killing environmental regulations from the 44th president’s time in office are still hurting Alabama.

Alabama Power Company announced Wednesday that the Gorgas Steam Plant in Walker County will be shuttered because of unrealistic and cost-prohibitive mandates put in place by President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The plant, which has been operational since 1917, will cease operating its three coal-fired generating units and close April 15.

The facility could not meet the stringent mandates related to coal combustion residuals (CCR, better known as coal ash) in time, and the cost to convert to gasification would have been monumentally high. In a press release, the company said it estimated a price tag of approximately $300 million just to comply with one set of mandates and continue operating the plant’s coal-fired units.

Alabama Power has worked to ensure that almost all Plant Gorgas employees will be transferred to new facilities and get to keep their jobs. Bevill State Community College has been working with the company to retrain affected employees. 

Jim Heilbron, senior vice president and senior production officer for Alabama Power, said, “We recognize that Plant Gorgas and the men and women who have operated it have brought great value to Alabama Power, our customers and the local community.”

Patrick Cagle, president of the Alabama Coal Association, told Yellowhammer News that he commends Alabama Power’s efforts at minimizing the economic impact of the closure.

“President Obama’s administration declared war on the coal industry and unfortunately this is the latest example of that legacy,” he stated.

Cagle continued, “The Alabama Coal Association is keenly aware of the economic impact this closure will have on the local community, and we commend Alabama Power for working to relocate affected employees and minimize this economic impact as much as possible. Alabama Power has been a longtime partner to us and our members, and we appreciate their continued commitment to investing in our great state and local economies through the use of Alabama coal.”

In a statement to Yellowhammer News, Congressman Robert Aderholt (AL-4) commented, “This is just another example of [Obama’s] ‘War on Coal.’”

“While I’m certainly glad to hear that most of the employees of the Gorgas plant will be able to keep their jobs, the loss of tax revenue to Walker County is astronomical,” he advised. “This is just another example of the ‘War on Coal’ that was prevalent during the Obama Administration and how it deeply impacts rural communities with little concern for those who are hurt.”

Aderholt also outlined how elections – and the policies of respective administrations – have consequences that cannot be undone overnight.

“President Trump has made progress in rolling back the Obama Administration executive orders that were trying to kill coal and coal jobs. And in Congress, I voted in 2015 on a bill that would roll back crippling EPA rules, but as has been the case for far too many bills, it went to the Senate where it was allowed to die,” he explained.

Aderholt concluded, “I, along with my conservative colleagues, are fighting alongside President Trump to stop these job choking, economic crushing and community killing regulations. But changing the chronic Washington lack of understanding when it comes to rural America, will take time to reverse.”

Alabama Public Service Commission — ‘The war on coal finally took its toll’

A press release from the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) stressed that due to “extreme Obama Era Federal regulations… there is just no choice regarding the future of Plant Gorgas.”

“In 2008, candidate Obama declared war on coal and promised to bankrupt anyone who built a coal fired electricity plant. President Obama immediately went to work signing one after another punitive, burdensome federal mandates on the coal industry. Now his promise has come to fruition at Plant Gorgas,” the release said.

It added, “[T]he responsibility of the Alabama Public Service Commission is to require Alabama Power to provide secure, reliable service at the lowest cost to their customers.  Given this charge, along with the astronomical rising cost to comply with Obama era mandates, there is just no choice regarding the future of Plant Gorgas.”

“The company has taken every possible step to keep the plant up and running, but the war on coal finally took its toll,”  Public Service Commission (PSC) President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh said.

“Obama said he wanted to make it too expensive to run coal-fired plants, and he did. I commend President Trump for rolling back as many of the Obama mandates as he could. The problem for us here in Alabama was that Obama placed the biggest bullseye on us, and Trump’s valiant effort at finally implementing common sense came along a little too late,” she concluded.

Commissioner Jeremy Oden remarked, “I serve the State of Alabama as the Chairman of the Clean Coal Committee for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. One of my duties across the country is to make sure these plants continue to serve their mission in economical ways. With the mandated environmental retrofit required to continue to produce energy at Gorgas with coal, it is no longer feasible. I have spent years nationally trying to save these plants, and it saddens me deeply to see this happen in our state.”

Commissioner Chip Beeker commented, “Obama’s negligence and disregard for Alabama families and their jobs is one of the many destructive outcomes of his presidency. The liberals who helped drive Obama’s agenda continue to put Alabama’s economy at risk. Our task moving forward is to keep the ones affected by this and their families in our hearts and in our prayers. We will continue to fight for our state to achieve the most reliable and affordable energy.”

The PSC emphasized that it supports Alabama’s coal industry and the miners who “have supported their families and our state’s economy with their self-sacrifice, hard work and dedication.”

The commission is urging Alabama Power to continue working “to minimize the impact of this closure on the communities and on the numerous families affected.”

Just the latest example

Unfortunately, Plant Gorgas is just the most recent Alabama casualty of Obama era mandates.

On New Year’s Eve, PowerSouth CEO Gary Smith emailed employees that Lowman Plant on the Tombigbee River in Washington County will be forced to close.

He pointed to the coal ash regulations as prohibitive to keeping the facility in business, saying “we are left few choices other than to close the Lowman Plant and obtain additional generation resources to replace the coal-fired generation.”

Smith also outlined why having coal in a power generation portfolio is so important to this day, lamenting “extremist environmental ideologies.”

“With closure of the Lowman Plant, we lose the diversity of coal-fired generation as a natural hedge against higher natural gas prices, and we are more dependent upon natural gas as a generation fuel (The Lowman Plant has been economically dispatched ahead of our most efficient natural gas units for the past four weeks because of higher-priced natural gas),” he advised.

“It is sad and disheartening that environmental activists, politicians, bureaucrats and others have allowed environmental and climate change movements to close coal-fired units and cost good, hardworking people their jobs and livelihoods,” Smith added. “The real victims are the hopes and dreams of Lowman employees, people with families, lives and needs that were met with their employment at the Lowman Plant, not the abstract climate threats to public health. Maybe one day our leaders will understand the real damage they have done.”

Additionally, Plant Gorgas is far from the only example just when it comes to Alabama Power facilities being affected by Obama administration environmental mandates.

“Federally driven environmental mandates related to coal, and the costs to comply with those mandates, are changing the way Alabama Power provides electricity to customers,” the company’s press release Wednesday noted.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

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