Waste disposal problems halt operations at FirstEnergy's Beaver County plant

FirstEnergy Corp.’s long-awaited plan to safely dispose of waste from its Beaver County coal-fired power plant has hit a major snag just six weeks after taking effect.

The Akron, Ohio-based energy company acknowledged it has indefinitely shut down two of its three power generating units at Bruce Mansfield Power Station after encountering problems with its $200 million dewatering facility.

The units “are currently offline as we make adjustments to the new coal combustion byproduct disposal process,” the company said in a statement. “The refinements are focused on making the material easier to handle for mine reclamation.”

Another factor in halting operations at the two units is a challenging energy market, in which daily energy prices do not support their operation, a spokeswoman noted.

Meanwhile, the third unit is temporarily offline as workers complete maintenance on the boiler.

“We are working expeditiously to return the units to service,” the statement read.

The development is another blow to FirstEnergy’s ailing generation business, which has struggled to compete in the electricity market.

Cheaper natural gas and lagging demand for electricity have weighed down profits at coal and nuclear power plants, which make up the majority of FirstEnergy’s generation. In November, the company said it is trying to sell all of its coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania to focus on its transmission and distribution businesses.

The construction of a $200 million, 24,000-square-foot dewatering facility at the Bruce Mansfield Plant in 2015. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)

While FirstEnergy quickly found a buyer for four of its natural gas power plants in January, the company is still marketing Bruce Mansfield, which is the largest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania and employs roughly 300 people.

If it can’t find a buyer in another year or so, the company could consider declaring the facility bankrupt, or shutting it down altogether.

One of the likely selling points of the 2,490-megawatt plant is the dewatering facility, which is designed to dry waste produced from burning coal so it can be loaded onto a barge and shipped to a safe disposal site.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered the facility’s previous waste site — the notoriously polluted coal ash landfill called Little Blue Run — to close by the end of 2016. Under the terms of that agreement, the plant cannot legally operate for more than a couple of days without having an approved place to dump its waste.

FirstEnergy had spent years and $260 million to build the 24,000-square-foot dewatering facility in time to comply with that deadline. The facility was completed last fall.

FirstEnergy wanted to ship the waste to another of its landfills beside Hatfield’s Ferry power plant in Greene County, which FirstEnergy closed in 2013. But it decided in December to ship the waste to Moundsville, W.Va., and dump it at a coal mine owned by Murray Energy.

The Department of Environmental Protection confirmed FirstEnergy still has the option to legally ship the waste to the Hatfield’s Ferry site, but said it had not received a request from FirstEnergy to do so.

FirstEnergy is scheduled to report financial earnings for the fourth quarter and all of 2016 on Feb. 22.

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore. 

Update, posted Feb. 16, 2017: A company spokeswoman provided additional information on the operation of the two generating units.

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.

<--Google analytics Ends-->