PRICE, Utah – For generations, coal has been the lifeblood of this mineral-rich stretch of eastern Utah. Mining families proudly recall all the years they toiled underground. Above the road that winds toward the mines, a soot-smudged miner peers out from a billboard with the slogan “Coal = Jobs.”
But recently, fear has settled in. The state’s oldest coal-fired power plant, tucked among the canyons near town, is set to close, a result of new, stricter federal pollution regulations.
As energy companies back away from coal, toward cleaner, cheaper natural gas, people here have grown increasingly afraid that their community may soon slip away. Dozens of workers at the facility here, the Carbon Power Plant, have learned that they must retire early or seek other jobs. Local trucking and equipment outfits are preparing to take business elsewhere.
“There are a lot of people worried,” said Kyle Davis, who has been employed at the plant since he was 18.
Davis, 56, worked his way up from sweeping floors to managing operations at the plant, whose furnaces have been burning since 1954.
“I would have liked to be here for another five years,” he said. “I’m too young to retire.”
But Rocky Mountain Power, the utility that operates the plant, has determined that it would be too expensive to retrofit the plant to meet new federal standards on mercury emissions. The plant is scheduled to be shut by April 2015.
For the past several years, coal plants have been shutting down across the country, driven by tougher environmental regulations, flattening electricity demand and a move by utilities toward natural gas.
Since 2010, more than 150 coal plants have been closed or scheduled for retirement.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the stricter emissions regulations for the plants will result in billions of dollars in related health savings.
But the notion that this pocket of Utah could survive without coal is hard for people here to comprehend.
Casey Hopes, a Carbon County commissioner, whose grandfather was a coal miner, voiced frustration with the Obama administration, saying it should invest more in clean coal technology.
Utah coal production, though, has been slowly declining for a decade, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Last year, mines here produced about 17 million tons of coal, the lowest level since 1987, although production has crept up this year.