After months of rumors, Alabama Power confirmed Wednesday that it is closing Plant Gorgas in Walker County on April 15 after more than a century of operation, marking another major milestone in the …
After months of rumors, Alabama Power confirmed Wednesday that it is closing Plant Gorgas in Walker County on April 15 after more than a century of operation, marking another major milestone in the declining fortunes of coal operations in the area.
Alabama Power had used the rural facility since it opened in 1917 to provide electricity to its customers. It had adapted and changed throughout the years but could not overcome ongoing environmental regulatory efforts that discouraged the use of coal in the 21st century, despite friendly statements from President Donald Trump for the coal industry in recent years.
According to the company, the closing "will not affect the company’s ability to provide reliable service to customers. Alabama Power and its employees will continue to be a part of, and involved in, supporting the local community."
Company statistics provided in 2014 show the Gorgas plant at that time employed 300, had a payroll of $18 million and paid more than $3 million in taxes to Walker County in 2013.
"The plant currently has about 180 employees," Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said in an email Wednesday. "No layoffs are anticipated. A number of employees (precise number still to be finalized) will remain at the plant indefinitely during the closure process and beyond. Other employees will have a job opportunity at other plants or other opportunities with the company. There may also be some attrition," such as retirements.
The news was announced Wednesday morning in a press release from the company. Word was leaking out from Alabama Power employees earlier in the morning.
"After more than a century of providing safe, reliable, affordable electricity to customers, Plant Gorgas is closing because of costly, federally driven environmental mandates," the company said in a release.
Sznajderman said that a plant meeting was held Wednesday morning with employees and company leadership to inform them of the decision.
Jim Heilbron, the company’s senior vice president and senior production officer, pointed in the release to government regulations related to the handling of coal ash and wastewater as the reason for the decision. Company officials estimated it would cost $300 million to comply with the newest environmental mandates in order to continue operating the plant's three coal-fired generating units.
A company website said the company has invested more than $853 million in environmental controls at the plant, reducing emissions as a result.
“We recognize that Plant Gorgas and the men and women who have operated it have brought great value to Alabama Power, our customers and the local community,” Heilbron said, adding, “We are also concerned that more regulations are on the horizon that could require additional, costly expenditures at the plant."
The release went on to say, "Federally driven environmental mandates related to coal, and the costs to comply with those mandates, are changing the way Alabama Power provides electricity to customers. Since 2015, these cost pressures have caused the company to reduce its coal-fired generating units from 23 to 10. After Plant Gorgas is retired, the company will have seven coal-fired units remaining, at three power plants. Prior coal unit reductions have been accomplished either through retirements or by converting units to natural gas."
The company release noted that Alabama Power uses a diversity of fuels, which gives it flexibility to switch fuel sources. That, in turn, protects its customers against volatile energy markets.
“Alabama Power is focused on providing our customers reliable, affordable electricity while protecting the environment we all share,” Heilbron said. He added that the company continuously examines its generating fleet and fuel mix to determine the most cost-effective way to meet the needs of customers, while meeting all government requirements.
Rumors about the plant's demise had circulated for about a year and would sometimes come up in meetings from officials around the county. At Christmas, Gorgas Steam Plant was featured as the Pilot Club of Jasper's annual Christmas ornament. The years "1918-2018" were inscribed at the bottom. A Facebook post from the club at the time said, "For those of you who may not know, they are closing in the near future."
The official statement from the company throughout 2018 was that the company at that time had no plans to close generating units at any of Alabama Power's plants. But speculation continued until a meeting last week between Appalachian Regional Commission officials and community and Bevill State officials. An audio tape of the meeting was provided to the Daily Mountain Eagle by the college the day after the meeting.
Al Moore, dean of workforce solutions and economic development for Bevill State, said at the meeting, "Alabama Power has been a key partner," Moore said on the tape. "Many of you from the community know two very large coal firing plants are about 15 to 20 minutes from this site. With that, one of them, which is the oldest, is about to shutter. With that, they have been transitioning many of their workers to different locations.
"For a few months now, several months now, we have been working to help retrain some of those folks who are going to be seeking other employment opportunities because they are both coal burning facilities. The one, they have issues with the EPA regs. They couldn't meet the regs in time, and the plant is so old the cost would have been astronomical for them to convert it to gasification. So that has been an issue. So we have been working with them about some training for some of those folks who are going to be dislocated."
A company spokeswoman later said Moore was referring to the Gorgas and Miller plants and that Gorgas was the plant set to close.
According to a Daily Mountain Eagle story in 2005, based on information from the company during the plant's 75th anniversary, Alabama Power President James Mitchell saw increased power demands by 1916 and decided to build a coal-fired fossil generating facility to be known as the Warrior Reserve Steam Plant. When it opened in 1917, it was between the Warrior River and nearby coal plants. A second unit was needed during World War I and was built in 1918 at government expense, and guarded for a short time by federal marshals. The company bought it back from the government in 1923.
A third unit was opened in 1924, while the operation was named for Dr. William Crawford Gorgas, known for abating the transmission of yellow fever and malaria by controlling the mosquitoes that carry these diseases. (He also had defended the company in a lawsuit involving mosquitoes at Lay Dam, saving the company millions of dollars.)
Seven more power generating units were constructed at Gorgas, and it became the company's oldest operating fossil plant. A company community was built around it, involving hundreds of homes, a hospital, a post office, a school, churches and recreational fields. The company provided utilities and water free, and residents lived rent free until a $4 monthly charge was started in the 1930s. Salaries ranged from $70 to $90 a month, which was considered top dollar.
The company would even develop its own mine, the Gorgas Mine, a mile from the plant, with new features such as bolts for roof control. The mine operated until the 1970s.
In 2002, Alabama Power installed state-of-the-art environmental technology at the plant, designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, a component of ground-level ozone. The technology was the first of its kind installed at an Alabama Power facility.
“The environmental controls on the plant now pretty much dwarf the actual plant itself,” Sznajderman said of Gorgas in 2014 when the company invited the media to observe a $380 million project that would bring the plant into compliance with federal air pollution standards.
The company said Units 6 and 7 were retired in 2015 after about 50 years, and they were disassembled in 2017.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, in January 2009, Sue Sturgis of the Institute of Southern Studies compiled a list of the 100 most polluting coal plants in the United States in terms of coal combustion waste (CCW) stored in surface impoundments, with data came from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) for 2006. Gorgas ranked No. 7 on the list, with nearly 2.9 million pounds of coal combustion waste released to surface impoundments in 2006.