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The future of a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle — and the economic activity that comes with it — is in the hands of the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.

As noted by HD Media’s Mike Tony in a recent article, Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power said in a Dec. 23 filing with the PSC that the Mitchell coal-fired power plant in Marshall County could cease operations in 2028.

The companies, both subsidiaries of American Electric Power, must decide whether to invest in equipment that would allow the plant to meet wastewater guidelines. That would allow the plant to continue operating until the projected end of its economic life in 2040.

The Mitchell plant has 214 employees earning $26.8 million in wages in 2020, according to a filing by the utilities last week. Last year, the Mitchell plant burned about 2.5 million tons of bituminous coal.

The West Virginia State Building and Construction Trades Council and the AFL-CIO support keeping the plant open. They estimate Mitchell, the John Amos plant in Putnam County and the Mountaineer plant in Mason County provided more than 4.7 million work hours for union members from 2015 to 2020. The plants provide construction jobs through routine and seasonal maintenance, equipment upgrades, pollution control device installation and landfill construction, according to a filing the trades council made in the case last month.

AEP says it needs to perform work at all three plants so they may meet modern environmental standards.

It seeks rate increases of 1.59% for residential customers, 1.52% for commercial customers and 1.72% for industrial customers.

This puts the PSC in an obvious political bind where the interests of ratepayers collide with those in the construction, coal and power industries.

Keeping Mitchell in operation for the 12-year period from 2028 to 2040 might only be delaying the inevitable. Unless something changes, renewables and natural gas are the fuels of the future. Appalachian Power is seeking this rate increase to keep the three plants open until 2040. It’s making no commitments beyond that date, which is only 19 years away.

West Virginia has lost at least two coal-fired plants in this decade — Kanawha River in Kanawha County and Sporn in Mason County. The Pleasants Power Station in Pleasants County is on life support.

Both southern and northern West Virginia produce metallurgical coal that is used in making steel. What goes on in the power industry won’t affect that market much. Or maybe it will, as the construction of gas-fired power plants will require steel. The market for steam coal, which is used in power plants, is clearly in decline.

Now that the governor and the Legislature have solved the problems of needle exchanges and transgendered athletes, it’s time to get serious about the futures of West Virginia’s communities that rely on coal and power plants that burn it.

Politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., like to talk about their plans, but outside of highways and clinics the long-term problems are not being addressed.

Maybe there is no solution, but no one wants to admit it. If there is to be a solution, it will have to come from inside the state, not from Washington.

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