Demise of coal-based power plants spotlights failure of legislators to protect communities and workers in transition –
By Patricia Beech –
One wonders these days what it must be like to be an employee of either the J.M. Stuart or Killen power plants here in Adams County.
What fears and frustrations those workers must have felt in the aftermath of DP&L’s announcement that the plants will be retired in June 2018, putting 700 people out of work.
For over 40 years the power plants have provided some of the most in-demand jobs in our area: jobs that held the promise of a 40-year career and a healthy retirement; jobs that allowed for a secure and comfortable life; jobs that people were proud to do.
That is all coming to an end.
Like many power companies across America, DP&L is transitioning away from coal to natural gas and other clean energy sources. It’s good for their bottom line. It’s good for their stock holders. It’s good for the atmosphere. But, for the employees and the communities that have supported and relied on coal-burning plants, it is a devastating turn of events.
Employees at DP&L were fortunate in their choice of jobs. They were able to buy homes and vehicles, take family vacations, send their kids to college, and secure their future retirement, while millions of tax-based dollars paid by the company bolstered their communities and local schools.
That is all coming to an end, leaving both the employees and their ommunities wondering what happens next.
Adams County will lose $9 million annually in tax revenue, $35 million annually in community payroll, and could potentially be left with a rusting hulk sitting on the bank of the Ohio River, visible for miles around, surrounded by unmanaged and untended ash-ponds containing billions of pounds of toxins that threaten the source of drinking water for millions of people.
It’s a double-edged sword. When DP&L is gone, expect higher unemployment. While higher unemployment can attract new businesses, a community needs infrastructure to support those businesses, and that is a necessary component that Adams County lacks.
Many, if not most of the locals employed at the plants graduated high school and went to work for DP&L. If they are unable to find work that pays wages comparable to what they’ve been making, many will face the direst economic repercussions.
Employees with 10, 15, or 20 years, but not yet at retirement age feel understandably betrayed, and those on the cusp of retirement after 40 plus years of labor are left to wonder whether they can compete in a market flooded by younger people.
In a recent statement DP&L officials said they recognized the “extent of the impact and uncertainty” the decision to close the plants created for their employees, and they reaffirmed their commitment to “managing workforce transition”.
However, many of the company’s employees say they are waiting in the dark for the hammer to fall. “We need more transparency,” one worker said. “They’re leaving everybody blind – we have no idea when they’ll close the doors.”
Having failed to forewarn in a meaningful way, it seems only fair that DP&L should be bending over backwards to provide its soon-to-be-disenfranchised employees with any and all answers they require during this period of transition.
The inscrutable professional behavior of the company’s officials and their unwillingness to engage in meaningful and open communication with local government officials spotlights the failure of legislators to pass laws that protect workers and communities facing unavoidable economic calamity.
In hindsight, perhaps some should have seen that the “war on coal”, which has become common parlance among politicians – both Republicans and Democrats, was foreshadowing the inevitable shuttering of coal-burning power plants.
Coal employment in the U.S. hit its peak in 1949, and the employment trend since then has primarily been downward. Under every recent president, both Democrats and Republicans, coal jobs have been lost, and the political rhetoric has ramped up without any real action being taken to protect those who would eventually be impacted by coal’s impending demise.
Was it lack of foresight or indifference on the part of our elected officials? Probably a bit of both. The changes in natural resources-based economies are complex and based on a variety of ever-shifting factors. It may be politically convenient for politicians to focus on the “war on coal”, but in doing so they may have missed the big picture, and neglected the needs of people and communities whose economic survival depends on coal-based industries.