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February 09, 2012

Clean Air and Public Health Wins - Now Will Energy Company Stand up for its Workers?

Smokestacks1On the heels of January’s announced coal plant retirements in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, this week we received another announcement from FirstEnergy that it would retire three more of its coal-fired power plants in West Virginia. The plants are slated to close on September 1, 2012. Last month's major FirstEnergy news was that the company will retire a whopping 2,689 megawatts (MW) of coal, bringing the total FirstEnergy announced retirements to 3,290 MW.

All this news means cleaner air for thousands of Americans, and it’s a result of years of tireless advocacy by hard-working local residents and volunteers across these states. It also means less air pollution in my backyard, for my family – one of the retiring coal plants is just 20 miles away from my home here in West Virginia.

But there's some unfinished business in these states. The transition from coal to clean energy needs to happen in a way that protects workers and communities, and FirstEnergy so far has shown no signs that it will do so.

We welcome this good news for our health, and for clean air and water, but we were disappointed to hear that – unlike other energy companies in the same position – FirstEnergy made no clear commitment that its affected workers would get new jobs in the clean energy economy.

We are calling on the company to do right by its workforce and the communities that rely on these plants for a sizable portion of municipal revenue. We are also calling on the company to invest in the enormous clean energy potential of these communities to create good, union jobs through energy efficiency, wind and solar. As the nation transitions away from coal, we must ensure that the workers and families who have dedicated their lives to producing coal-powered electricity are helping lead the way into a clean energy future.

This isn’t a pipe dream. We know that a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is possible because we’ve seen it happen, in state after state, in recent months.

Last March in Washington, the state senate approved a landmark agreement between the Sierra Club, Governor Chris Gregoire and TransAlta to phase out the state’s massive 1400MW coal plant between 2020 and 2025. The local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also supported the agreement.

That agreement created a $55 million fund that will be invested in the Centralia community to help move away from relying on the plant.  Not only will tens of millions of dollars be invested in Centralia community development, but a significant portion of the transition fund will additionally be dedicated to innovation and new technologies that will help reduce Washington's carbon pollution and create jobs.

Then, last April the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) board of directors approved a landmark agreement with three citizen groups – including the Sierra Club –, four states and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to phase out 18 units at coal-fired power plants and install modern pollution controls on three dozen additional units in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.

That agreement also required provisions for affected workers: TVA must invest $350 million in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee on additional air pollution-reduction projects over the next five years, including funds to help consumers and business cut their energy bills, support local businesses that are creating jobs in local clean energy projects and cut carbon pollution.

We are committed to clean energy, and we are committed to good jobs. And we will continue pushing FirstEnergy to do the same.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

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