MONONGAHELA TWP. — Workers who once thought that their jobs at Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station would see them through to retirement left the plant with different perspectives on their futures on Friday.
Hatfield’s 170 employees arrived at 7 a.m. and left an hour later after they were handed their layoff notices. All the employees have been reporting to work at the day-shift starting time last week to prepare the plant for the shutdown. The 1,710-megawatt producing plant wasn’t operating for the two weeks leading up to Friday.
FirstEnergy Corp., which owns Hatfield in Greene County and the Mitchell Power Station in Washington County, deactivated both plants, citing low demand and market prices for electricity and the cost of retrofitting them to meet federal mercury emission regulations that go into effect in 2015.
“Hatfield’s Ferry and Mitchell power stations are no longer producing power. Beginning (Friday), a reduced staff will be conducting final shutdown activities for the plants through mid-December,” FirstEnergy spokeswoman Stephanie Walton said. “Closing plants is never an easy decision. Hatfield’s Ferry and Mitchell were deactivated because they were uneconomical now and were expected to be (uneconomical) into the foreseeable future.”
“Everyone knew it was coming,” said Jim Premoshis, president of the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 102, which represents the plant workers.
Like many employees, Premoshis, of Fayette City, believed the $650 million that the plant’s previous owner, Allegheny Power, spent in 2009 to install a scrubber system, that removes sulfur dioxide and mercury from the air emissions, meant that the plant would continue operating long into the future.
After working at Mitchell for 31 years, Premoshis relocated to Hatfield a few years ago. He assumed he would retire from there, but the closing came a year before he reached the contractual retirement age of 55, so he will receive half of the pension benefits he was banking on.
“Like a life insurance policy” is how employee Gerry Grote of Smock viewed the scrubbers. “I never thought this day would come.”
After leaving the plant, Grote, Premoshis and a couple dozen fellow workers met at the nearby Top Hat Lounge where the feeling of mutual support kept most in good spirits.
Grote, 59, said he feels fortunate to have made it to retirement, but Friday was not a day of celebration.
“There’s no joy in it,” Grote said about retiring while his friends and co-workers will be forced to look for new jobs.
Like many people of his generation, he found a good-paying job in mining after high school and did not go to college.
“After high school, you could get a good job anywhere ... mines, mills. I don’t know where you do that anymore,” Grote said.
The good mood in the Top Hat reminded Grote of what happened when he was laid off from a coal mine in the 1980s. He said his fellow miners took the layoff in stride at first, but their attitudes grew worse as time passed without finding new jobs.
It’s the younger Hatfield workers with children and house payments who Grote said he is concerned about. He said one such man who worked in his crew moved from Ohio with his family when he was hired at the plant in the spring. He returned to Ohio to close the sale of his old home on July 9, the day FirstEnergy announced it was deactivating the plants, Grote said.
All the workers will receive severance pay from the company, but Grote is also leaving with his full pension and health-care benefits that last until he turns 65. He said his wife plans to continue working as a nurse.
Grote said he plans on spending his retirement hunting and visiting his two grown children who live in Utah and the state of California.
Ryan Sullivan’s future is much less certain. He said he paid to go to school to learn how to become a power plant operator and completed a union internship before he was hired at Hatfield in March. Now, Sullivan, who lives in Morgantown, W.Va, said he doesn’t know how he will come up with the money to pay off the loan he borrowed to pay for his education.
“I’m going to take a few days off, then I’m going to keep pushing,” Sullivan said.
He said he interviewed for a plant operator’s job in North Carolina, but he was among 20 other applicants and isn’t assured of landing the job.
Vince Milsom of South Union Township is among the fortunate ones. He said he found a good-paying job with Valero in the gas and oil industry that will provide for his two young children.
He, his family and friends thought he had a career at Hatfield when he was hired 6 ½ years ago. He said everybody congratulated him when he landed what he thought was a job of a lifetime.
“I thought I was going to retire from here,” Milsom said. “I never thought this would happen in a million years. A lot of good guys just got let go. I’d give all of them a good reference. They are good workers. Not everyone is built for shift work.”
Twenty-three of the employees will remain on the job through mid-December to shut down the equipment and machinery in the plant.