HELPER — Utah's oldest coal-fired power plant, a pioneer for its time, is shutting down Wednesday, closing its doors for good one day ahead of when a new federal rule on mercury emissions takes effect.
The Carbon power plant at Helper has been a towering icon off U.S. 6 for more than six decades, nestled snugly between the coal-seamed mountains of Price Canyon.
With its closure goes the loss of about 70 good-paying jobs from the employment rolls in Carbon County, although workers who are willing to relocate to power plants in Castle Dale or Huntington will still draw a paycheck.
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said the loss of the plant is a big deal for such a small community and that tightening environmental regulations are cause for increasing concern in his district.
"People don't realize the impact it is having here on residents, this area."
Since the first power generation unit came online in 1954, the plant has been a sentinel at the gateway to Utah's Castle County, its turbines an integral part of PacifiCorp's West-wide power grid.
For a coal community like Carbon County, for the generations of employees who have punched a clock at the building, the shuttering of the legacy power plant stings.
"There are a lot of us who have invested a lot of our life here," said plant manager Kyle Davis. "It's like losing a friend, or a death in the family. You mourn for it."
In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the first nationwide regulation designed to curb mercury emissions and other toxic pollutants, and set a compliance date of April 16, 2015.
An analysis by the federal agency said the rule requiring new pollution controls would reduce mercury and the other toxins by as much as 91 percent, helping to prevent thousands of premature deaths and heart attacks, and improving the respiratory health of children.
The EPA figured the rule would impact 40 percent of the nation's stable of power plants and many '50s-era plants would be forced to retire in lieu of costly capital investments.
Such was the case for the Carbon, or Castle Dale plant, which was among the hundreds of power plants across the country that rose up in a post-World War II economy teeming with growth and optimism and hungry for energy.
Carbon was a giant and an example of a new idea when the nine-story building was built just east of Helper adjacent to the Price River.
For years, power plants were built where people lived, and coal was trucked or delivered via rail over long distances to be consumed on site by these behemoth structures sharing space with cities.
Dave Eskelsen, a spokesman for PacifiCorp's subsidiary, Rocky Mountain Power, said Carbon was the first plant in the company's fleet to be built near a coal mine — the ultimate source of the fuel.
"As giant power plants go, it was a pioneer."
Three years after the first generating unit powered up in 1957, a second unit became operational, bringing the nameplate capacity of the power plant to 172 megawatts.
In Carbon and Emery counties, for those who didn't go underground to bring up the coal, the power plant was a dependable mainstay of employment for fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.
As the decades wore on and the Clean Air Act began to impose more regulatory control over pollutants, both the Carbon plant and the Hale plant at the mouth of Provo Canyon began to show their age.
Hale was closed in the '80s and subsequently removed. Already slated for potential retirement in 2020, Carbon's demise was hastened with the passage of the mercury rule.
"We looked at a range of compliance strategies, and retirement was an option. We did a cost-benefit analysis and had to make a decision that is in the best interest of our customers long term."
Eskelsen said the Carbon plant is also a victim of its geography. The tight fit in the canyon precludes the installation of towering equipment called a baghouse that reduces mercury emissions.
The decision to close was tough.
"It is difficult when you have an external requirement that requires closing a plant sooner than expected," he said.
"Carbon is kind of like that great old pickup truck you have," he said. "It runs well and it is paid for."
Both Eskelsen and Davis said Carbon was a standout workhorse in the company's power plant fleet, with Unit 1 available to produce power 98 percent of the time, compared to most units that have a functional capacity percentage in the high 80s.
"It's a rugged old unit that is not really complicated, and it runs," Davis said. "It is like a Peterbilt semi. The new plants are like a Ferrari."
But like old pickups, power plants are big polluters.
The EPA says power plants across the country are responsible for more than half the human-caused mercury pollution and more than 75 percent of acid gas emissions.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil, but when coal is burned the mercury inside of it is released. Exposure to mercury can affect the human nervous system and harm multiple organs.
EPA numbers show Carbon emitted 52 pounds of mercury pollutants in 2013, and, by industry standards, environmental groups say it is one of the dirtiest of coal-fired power plants.
As the country continues to make the transition away from coal toward cleaner sources of energy — the Energy Information Administration says the nation's power production from coal has dropped from 52 percent to 37 percent since 2000 — critics say the closures are inevitable and welcome.
"In one short decade, the American public has transitioned from energy apathy to energy awareness, which recognizes the high external costs of carbon-based fuels," said Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
"And that has been the catalyst for change, resulting in old dirty coal burners like the Carbon plant being put out to pasture, and states like Texas and Iowa now getting at least a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources. As the awareness matures and grows, the day isn't far off when everyone will see this as a good thing."
For many in Utah's coal country, the effects are not such a "good thing," and the pain is real.
Unlike most of the other employees who will walk away for the last time come the close of business Wednesday, Davis will stay on to help shepherd the plant's demolition.
Davis, who has worked at the plant 38 years and was its manager the last three, grew up in nearby Helper and comes from two grandfathers who both worked the coal mines. His father worked for what was then called Utah Power & Light, now Rocky Mountain Power.
He will remain through fall and witness the aging plant he kept together be tore apart.
"I have crawled through most of the places in this place," he said. "This thing has been coming at us like a freight train. And now it is going to be done."
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