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America's Power Plant Problem

More than 200 out of the 523 coal-fired power plants that were in operation five years ago are now closed or slated for closure. What should we do with them?
An abandoned coal-fired power plant in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Bill Dickinson/Flickr)

An abandoned coal-fired power plant in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Bill Dickinson/Flickr)

The English Station coal-fired power plant sits on eight acres of land on Ball Island, a large chunk of property that nearly stretches from riverbank to riverbank in the middle of the Mill River in New Haven, Connecticut. The plant takes up pretty much the entire island, an old albatross of the industrial era surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire. Though the plant stopped producing electricity in 1991, its four smoke stacks still loom over Fair Haven, a culturally and economically diverse neighborhood in New Haven that has been pursuing urban re-development along its riverfront property in recent years.

Even though it's been abandoned for about 25 years, English Station still sits in environmental and economic limbo. The property has changed hands four times since 2000, with mergers and bankruptcies slowly making their way through the courts. Before any sort of re-development can be undertaken, asbestos and PCB contamination must first be cleaned up. The cost for that remediation is now estimated to be $30 million.

The problem, then, is figuring out who pays for the clean-up. Two energy companies—United Illuminating (the former owner) and Spanish energy giant Iberdrola—are in merger talks, and have agreed now to pay for the clean-up once the new company is formed. This comes after years of haggling over whether United Illuminating was obligated to foot the bill for any pre-merger clean-up efforts. They finally agreed that the newly formed company should do the clean-up, but that will only happen if the merger is approved. State regulators are now determining if the merger is fair to rate payers; if the merger is denied, it's back to the clean-up drawing board.

"We all would rather have cleaner air sooner rather than later, and closing these coal-fired power plants is a good thing."

Until the case is resolved, English Station will continue to sit abandoned. We're likely to see more and more of this around the country, as coal-fired power plants are shuttering in huge numbers, and little attention is being paid to what happens after they close.

The Midwest and Northeast—two beacons of the Industrial Revolution—are bearing the brunt of the closures. In terms of national environmental priorities, it would seem that, with so many properties on water (when they were constructed in the early 1900s, access to water for cooling was essential) and a clear environmental justice angle, this issue might be higher on the priority list.

"Around the country, we are seeing power plants being closed in areas where other industries have faded, and the power plants are not exiting gracefully," says Claire Miller, a community organizer for Toxics Action Center, a conservation group that helps New England communities deal with issues of pollution and clean-up.

"We all would rather have cleaner air sooner rather than later, and closing these coal-fired power plants is a good thing," Miller says. "But what we are seeing is that the closing of these plants is leaving a big mess behind, and we need to get a better plan in place on what to do with these properties when they close. Twenty-five or 30 years is a bit long for a community to have to have an eyesore with a big environmental impact in their neighborhoods, just sitting there with a fence around it."


Figuring out what to do with shuttered power plants is fast becoming a major environmental issue. According to the Sierra Club, which is leading the initiative to close as many coal-fired power plants as possible through its Beyond Coal campaign, more than 200 out of the 523 plants that were in operation five years ago are now closed or slated for closure.

Some are being re-designed to handle natural gas power generation. Some developers are tearing down the generating structures and using the vacant property for solar panels because of the proximity of the old plant property to the power grid. But the percentage of old coal-fired power plants being re-used for some other form of power generation is still quite small; most of the 200 and counting will simply collect dust.

One issue activists face: With all these plants closing around the same time—and closures occurring in just about every state—the combined amount of environmental clean-up funding to re-purpose the properties is going to amount to more than the country has ever seen. But the responsibility for the clean-up costs varies from state to state. Some require that the clean-up is performed prior to the property transfer; others require that the new owners foot the clean-up bill before their new use permits can be approved.

Regardless, the high clean-up costs ensure that many of these shuttered power plants will remain part of the modern ruin porn landscape for decades to come. The utility companies that own these properties are still in business for the most part—either making or moving electricity through the grid—and it makes more financial sense for the companies to sit idly on the properties than pay for a multi-million dollar clean-up that they likely won't earn back through a sale.

The environmental rules are complicated, and can vary from place to place in some of the specifics, but the Environmental Protection Agency does not require clean-up of existing pollution problems unless the property is re-used for another purpose. So, for example, the utility companies have clean-air standards they must meet for burning coal to produce electricity. And while they would not have to clean up buried coal ash for producing the same electricity, they would have to clean it up if the property was changed to housing or retail. Leaving the property vacant does not require a clean-up, unless there is a public safety issue, which is why many utility companies decide its in their best interest to do nothing at all.

These are large chunks of property—often between 50 to 100 acres each—smack in the middle of very dense cities. So, on the one hand, these properties could be very desirable, given that new developers, be they private or public, won't have to assemble land from many different buyers. But the downside is that the cost of clean-up and huge investment required for big projects like these make it unlikely that more than a handful of them will be taken on at any one time across the country.

The English Station power plant in New Haven, Connecticut. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The English Station power plant in New Haven, Connecticut. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Right now, the plant closings could free up about 20,000 acres of polluted—and mostly waterfront—properties, which could in turn be retrofitted as open space or urban development projects. While some economists point out that these waterfront properties have value due to an emphasis in urban planning to utilize water as a drawing card for new users—either for housing, entertainment, or open space—the sheer numbers coming on the market at the same time makes it more likely than not that many will sit abandoned for a long time to come.

The natural solution would be to find funding for the clean-up, and to simply delay the transfer of property and re-development until further down the road. Or, perhaps, to make the utility companies responsible for all clean-up costs, specifically at the time of closing, rather than at the time of the property transfer.

"Every site has a different set of issues, and the difficulty is that, in the clean-up process, everybody would like someone else to pay," says Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Poverty Center. "The company says we are closing it down, so we are doing our part and we shouldn't have to pay. The re-developer doesn't want to because it doesn't make economic sense for them."

"Some think it is a federal government issue, others a state issue, others say it is a local city or county issue," Learner says. "Too often everyone is looking to use other people's money. But we feel this is the basic premise we should work toward: The company that owns the property should take responsibility to clean the site, and they should do so when the property is shut down in a timely manner."

That sums up pretty succinctly a major part of the problem with these closures: Determined to shut these plants down, neither the Sierra Club nor the federal government pushed for state or federal legislation requiring the utility companies to undertake the clean-up within a certain time period after closure; doing so, they feared, would discourage companies from ceasing operations in their plants in the first place.


Due to a lack of immediate need, plant clean-up was pushed far down the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign's list of issues. The idea was to first get the plants shut down—and alleviate the health problems of those who lived nearby—and to worry about what to do with them later.

States and communities that have coal mines wanted funding to ease the transition, and local governments needed similar funding from the loss of jobs and property and income taxes once the plants closed.

The Obama administration has earmarked more than $50 million in 2016 for its "Power+ Plan," aimed at transitioning from coal-generated power to more renewable energy. But $20 million of that will go to workers discharged from coal mines, $25 million to the Appalachian communities effected, $6 million to economically distressed communities, and roughly $5 million for "brownfield" studies in communities affected by the retirement of coal-fired plants.

"Some of the national environmental groups are missing the boat as far as what we need in the communities."

Allocating just $5 million out of a $50 million-plus pot to studying property reuse is a big part of the problem, according to Kim Wasserman, strategy director for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in Chicago. After helping to close the city's Fisk and Crawford coal-fired plants, Wasserman and her colleagues have turned their attention to reuse.

"Part of the problem with the Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign is that, while it has very good intentions, it was not talking much to the community groups on the ground who had the most change taking place when these plants closed," Wasserman says.

"Some of the national environmental groups are missing the boat as far as what we need in the communities," she adds. "We understood the economic and health costs of living near these power plants, and we worked hard to get them closed. But then everyone stopped talking about what comes next. They were thinking of this issue in a singular manner, that getting them closed [was] the whole goal."

While the Fisk plant will likely re-purposed as a Chicago Transit Authority bus mechanic depot, the future of the Crawford plant, which has been closed since 2012, remains up in the air.

The Crawford plant sits along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal near South Pulaski Road. The 63-acre site is still held by the remnants of the utility company, Midwest Generation, which recently filed for bankruptcy. There's been discussion of turning the area into a light industrial site, complete with a vocational technical school and park on the waterfront, or perhaps a mixed-use retail/office development. But that can't happen until clean-up funding is settled, and Wasserman says nothing looks to be done in the immediate future.

The Sierra Club, for its part, realizes that its Beyond Coal campaign must now move beyond the closure phase. "There is a great opportunity in the re-development of a coal plant sites, and there are a lot of decisions to be made of who bears the responsibility in cleaning in it up and what happens next," says Emily Rosenwasser, a Sierra Club spokesperson.

"What we are doing mostly is trying to help communities take a proactive approach, to get ahead of the curve and make sure they get a seat at the table," Rosenwasser says. "We support what the community wants, and maybe we haven't been at the forefront on the issue because we have been trying to help them do what they want, not what people who don't live in those neighborhoods want." Rosenwasser adds that the Sierra Club supports legislation being considered in some states that would make environmental clean-up a required part of the decommission process.

While grassroots decision-making is being favored to take the lead on re-purposing these power plants, it's clear leadership at the top has been missing in many ways. With an array of issues including property negotiations, bankruptcy court, EPA regulations, and economic development criteria, many cities and community organizations are incapable of handling such a complex process.

Until the federal government comes up with some standards or emergency funding to solve the problem, these coal-fired power plants on prime waterfront property will sit unused.

In 2014, the Chicago-based Delta Institute, a non-profit sustainability organization, published a report that looked at 25 active coal plant re-development projects. It found shutdown to re-development took 27 years on average, and 16 years just for the property to change hands.

So perhaps the 25 years that the English Station power plant in New Haven has been sitting vacant shouldn't be looked at as an anomaly. It is, after all, still a few years short of the average.

And perhaps every one-time industrial city in the United States will one day have its own English Station, a fenced in eyesore left to haunt residents for decades.