A Part of Utah Built on Coal Wonders What Comes Next
For generations, coal has been the lifeblood of this mineral-rich stretch of eastern Utah. Mining families proudly recall all the years they toiled underground. Supply companies line the town streets. Above the road that winds toward the mines, a soot-smudged miner peers out from a billboard with the slogan “Coal = Jobs.”
But recently, fear has settled in. The state’s oldest coal-fired power plant, tucked among the canyons near town, is set to close, a result of new, stricter federal pollution regulations.
As energy companies tack away from coal, toward cleaner, cheaper natural gas, people here have grown increasingly afraid that their community may soon slip away. Dozens of workers at the facility here, the Carbon Power Plant, have learned that they must retire early or seek other jobs. Local trucking and equipment outfits are preparing to take business elsewhere.
“There are a lot of people worried,” said Kyle Davis, who has been employed at the plant since he was 18.
But Rocky Mountain Power, the utility that operates the plant, has determined that it would be too expensive to retrofit the aging plant to meet new federal standards on mercury emissions. The plant is scheduled to be shut by April 2015.
For the last several years, coal plants have been shutting down across the country, driven by tougher environmental regulations, flattening electricity demand and a move by utilities toward natural gas.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the stricter emissions regulations for the plants will result in billions of dollars in related health savings, and will have a sweeping impact on air quality.
“Coal plants are the single largest source of dangerous carbon pollution in the United States, and we have ready alternatives like wind and solar to replace them,” said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which wants to shut all of the nation’s coal plants.
For many here, coal jobs are all they know. The industry united the area during hard times, too, especially during the dark days after nine men died in a 2007 mining accident some 35 miles down the highway. Virtually everyone around Price knew the men, six of whom remain entombed in the mountainside.
But there is quiet acknowledgment that Carbon County will have to change — if not now, soon.
Pete Palacios, who worked in the mines for 43 years, has seen coal roar and fade here. Now 86, his eyes grew cloudy as he recalled his first mining job. He was 12, and earned $1 a day. “I’m retired, so I’ll be fine. But these young guys?” Pete Palacios said, his voice trailing off.