This week’s NYTimes article on the Big Sandy plant in Appalachia has put in sharp relief the problem of balancing the need to cut down on pollution from coal-fired power plants with the understandable hardships to the local population that would result from shutting down the plant, operated by American Electric Power, one of the largest utilities in the country. Actually, the company wants to keep the plant in operation by installing a billion dollar remediation system to trap the arsenic, mercury and other pollutants (though not carbon dioxide) now emanating from the plant, which is the reason for the mandated shutdown, based on a modification of the Clean Air Act passed during the Bush(2) administration. However, the capital cost and higher operating cost of the new equipment would be passed on to consumers, increasing electricity rates substantially in a region where many people already live close to or below the poverty line. To complete the picture, some of the coal burned in this plant is stripped from hillsides, often causing landslides and ground water pollution. It’s clear where environmental groups stand in this matter.
In the big picture, of the nation’s 320 gigawatts of coal capacity, up to 60 are slated to be retired in the eastern U.S. over the next 10 years or so. With ample natural gas
becoming available, utilities have been replacing coal with gas for strong economic reasons. But a lot of miners’ jobs are at risk. If and when a carbon tax is imposed to deal with the carbon dioxide problem, the Federal Government needs to use some of the proceeds to subsidize those parts of the population hit by steep increases in electricity bills. In the case of Big Sandy, there is no tax-related fund available for helping the miners with higher rates. But a combination of private money (AEPower and coal mining firms) and State and Federal Government money (e.g. tax abatements, subsidies) should somehow find a way to help the local population. We need to keep using as well as exporting coal and should find a way to solve this dilemma in a fair and equitable way that would also include enforcing proper regulations on coal strip mining in Appalachia.