Coal industry warns proposed EPA rule could force fourth of plants to close

In obscure, blue-collar towns across Appalachia -- places that most Americans have never seen -- generations of coal miners have toiled away at back-breaking labor to power American homes and industry. Now, as many as 200,000 of them who dig, process, transport and burn America's most abundant fuel are threatened by EPA's latest coal rule.

It imposes a standard for emissions that is all but impossible for many plants to meet. It requires coal-fired plants to release no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

The only means for many older plants to attain that standard is to install what is known as carbon capture and storage technology. But that's expensive and not commercially available.

"At the end of the day, we just couldn't justify it based upon what that cost would be," says Mark Durbin of First Energy, which owns the Willow Island Power Station in Albright, W.Va., "It would be astronomical to try and retrofit some of older units that really are not as efficient as they should be."

Environmentalists are praising the new rule as a vital defense against climate change.

"We know what fossil fuel damages do to our public health, the health of our kids, our families,"  said Brent Blackwelder at a recent gathering of Friends of the Earth. "We know the damage it does to crops and to buildings. And now the big damage all around the world is climate disruption."

But coal industry representatives believe they've made great strides in reducing emissions through the years -- now capturing  over 99 percent of particulate emissions released during the combustion process. The EPA's proposed rule, they say, sets the bar too high and may force the closure of 20 to 25 percent of coal-fired plants across the United States.

In a state known for its bare-knuckles politics, both men vying for the governor’s office have joined forces in fighting this and other EPA regulations that target the coal industry. Incumbent Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin plans to sue the EPA over the rule - a move that his Republican opponent Bill Maloney welcomes.

"Last year at this time, we were looking for 2,000 coal miners to go to work. Now there's 2,000 laid off," Maloney said. "We've got six coal-fired power plants that are being shut. We're losing our competitive edge, and it's wrong."

As one measure of the disdain in West Virginia for the Obama administration's crackdown on coal, a federal prisoner doing 17 years for extortion got 41 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary to President Obama's 59 percent.

Administration supporters are banking on cheap, clean and abundant natural gas as a substitute for coal-fired power, but critics say there are problems with its transportation and storage -- problems which have lead to price hikes in the past.

Craig Jennings, president of the Preston County, W.Va., Commission, says his constituents are bracing for big spikes in their electricity bills.

"They're telling us that you're going to see at least a 30 percent increase in your electric bill now," he said. "For an older person on a fixed income in an older home who's used to paying $300 a month for an electric bill they're going to be pushing $400 a month now on that same electric bill."

West Virginians can take comfort in one small legal victory, one they hope to see repeated in other pending lawsuits. In March, a federal judge reversed a controversial EPA rule that  forced Mingo Logan Coal Company to stop work at its Spruce Number One Mine, a property in which it had already invested millions of dollars.

The judge concluded that the EPA exceeded its authority under the Clean Water Act  by revoking a permit that had already been granted.