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July 26, 2013

FirstEnergy Fails Working Families in Southwest Pennsylvania

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Photo: Sierra Club volunteers show solidarity with Utility Workers Union of America members at a rally at the Hatfield's Ferry coal-fired power plant.

FirstEnergy's mishandling of its recent and sudden announcement to retire the Mitchell and Hatfield’s Ferry coal-fired power plants in Southwestern Pennsylvania was a worst-case scenario for how to handle a coal plant transition. The company failed to warn employees who had already been working without a fair contract for months, or the local communities that will be affected. Poorly planned decisions like this only reinforce the belief that corporate executives and politicians care more about industry bottom lines than the people who work in power plants -- just as they seem to care little about the damaging effects of toxic pollution on our air, water and health. 

The Sierra Club is fighting for a fair and just transition to a clean, renewable energy economy where all people have access to healthy air, clean water and good jobs. We know from experience that coal plant retirements can be structured in ways that take care of affected workers and the local economy.

For example, in Washington state, we worked with unions and communities to ensure that a multi-million dollar transition plan for the workers was included in the plans to retire the Centralia coal plant. And we successfully negotiated with the Tennessee Valley Authority to spend $350 million on local economic development as part of a string of coal plant phase outs and pollution upgrades. We also worked with the Moapa Band of Paiutes in Nevada to build the largest tribal solar plant in the nation, with union allies for the city of Los Angeles to buy power from that plant, and with both of those allies to make sure a state decision to phase out two major coal plants included a commitment to 350 MW of new renewable energy. So we know what it looks like when workers and communities are part of the plan. FirstEnergy has failed on this front, and its executives are shirking responsibility to the employees and communities that are forced to live with its toxic legacy.

A just transition means that the affected workers, their unions, and the communities they support are equal partners in a managed transition, not pawns in a corporate profit-making scheme they learn about after the fact. It means that impacted workers receive job security and livelihood guarantees as part of the transition. It means that every level of government and business is directly engaged in an all-out effort to maximize investments in economic development, provide workforce training, and create lasting, good jobs that strengthen the economy and sustain working families. A just transition means the corporations responsible for harmful pollution are accountable for cleaning it up so that communities are left with usable land and clean water. It means environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, and unions, such as the Utility Workers Union of America, jointly advocate through partnerships like the Blue Green Alliance for project labor agreements, living wage laws, neutrality agreements, and licensing and training standards and opportunities.  

It is not a just transition when rapacious corporations force workers and communities to bear the full cost of the transition. 

When business, environmental groups, communities, workers, and their unions plan together for a just transition, we can maximize job opportunities and economic development, often in ways that are more job- and worker-friendly than the retiring plants. So far, FirstEnergy and Pennsylvania leaders have failed in their responsibility to working families. 

- Dean Hubbard, Director of the Sierra Club Labor Program

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