Conesville Keeps Close Watch On Anti-Pollution Dispute

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Joe Balo, 91, takes a break from mowing his yard on June 29, 2011. Balo, retired coal miner and former mayor, has lived in the small village of Conesville, Ohio, his entire life. The street he lives on is named after him.(Photo: Ally Marotti/WOSU)

The demand for electricity in Ohio usually peaks in July and August. Coal is the main source of electricity in the region but pollution from coal burning power plants has been linked to increased asthma and the federal government wants to accelerate anti-pollution rules. In the second of two reports, WOSU’s Tom Borgerding and Ally Marotti traveled to an electric generating plant and the small village that grew up in the shadow of its smokestacks.

When an air conditioner kicks on in a suburban Columbus backyard. Chances are it gets some of its electric power from a generating plant 70 miles to the east in Conesville.

The small village of about 350 residents is home to one of American Electric Power’s coal-fired generating plants. The tallest smokestacks tower 805 feet. The stacks constantly spew emissions from burnt coal. But, former Conesville mayor, 91 year old Joseph Balo, pays little attention. He says American Electric Power has cleaned up much of the pollution emitted from the plant.

“Before they started all this pollution deal, why there was a lot of fly ash and it was pretty dirty but then they used to have buckets around here to collect it see how much it was building up. Then they started pollution they’ve got that pretty well stopped on all of the stacks. I think they’re main thing now is carbon dioxide.”

Before retirement, Balo worked for the Peabody Coal company for 26 years. He helped keep the Conesville plant supplied with fuel.

“Can’t burn anything any cheaper than coal. There’s going to be a certain amount of dirt.”

The Conesville plant was built in the late 1950s. It is situated alongside the Muskingum river and an abandoned strip coal mine. At the time it was built, the coal from the mine was fed directly to the plant.

Inside the plant, constant noise, superviser Erich Skelley says workers closely monitor computers so they can respond to spikes in electricity demand.

“Well there’s a computer program, and the guys and girls in Columbus that are watching the load are keeping track and making sure that the demand is being met. And then they relay information and instructions to the operators here in the plant on where they want the unit to be at a certain time. And it is on time delivery. There is no storing of it.”

Skelly says two of the smaller units at Conesville can burn a combined 325 tons of coal per hour. Average daily coal consumption for all units at Conesville is 12,000 tons. AEP Ohio s Vice President of Power Generation, Mark Piefer says the Conesville plant is compliant with current federal anti-pollution rules. But, the company says stricter rules will force it to partially close Conesville and layoff some workers.

Health and environmental advocacy groups say the stricter anti-pollution rules are needed to blunt the effects of coal power plant emissions. Shelley Kiser of the American Lung Association in Ohio weighs the health benefits of stricter Clean Air rules

“There’s a cost to not cleaning it up. The huge health care cost to not cleaning up that pollution.”

In 2010, in Coshocton county where the Conesville plant is located, the non-profit advocacy group, Clean Air Task Force estimated there were six deaths and 84 asthma attacks attributable to fine particle pollution from power plants. CATF is a Boston non-profit with offices in Ohio.

Coshocton County Health Commissioner Bob Brems says any direct link of respiratory illnesses and deaths to emissions at Conesville are tenuous.

“Certain pollutants, particulates and those types of things, certainly can trigger asthma. Whether or not our specific plant that’s in our county causes that and triggers that, specifically for our residents, I have no way of determining that.”

Back at the plant, Piefer says coal will remain a primary fuel for electricity generation in Ohio. The company has done small tests on biomass and has contracted to buy some power from solar and wind farms. But those power sources will remain just a fraction of what is needed to keep up with consumer demand. Piefer says natural gas looks more promising as a replacement for some of its coal fuel..

“As you know, you’ve probably heard of the Marcellus gas field. That could be a real game changer in how we provide the needs of our customers.”

The Marcellus gas field stretches from eastern Ohio north to the great Lakes and east to Albany, New York. It is just in the beginning stages of development. But, Piefer says it’s a much cleaner fuel than Appalachian coal.