Closing of Western Pennsylvania power plants leaves workers at a loss



A job for life. That's what they were promised.

It wasn't in a contract, but to the 20 men who gathered for Bud Lights and commiseration Wednesday night in Greene County, working at a power plant was the equivalent.

"This was the job everybody wanted," said Ray Christner Jr. of Brownsville. "We had it. And now it's gone."

Nine days had passed since FirstEnergy announced it will shut down two power plants: Hatfield's Ferry, Greene County, across the Monongahela River from Masontown, Fayette County, and Mitchell in Union Township, Washington County, by Oct. 9 -- leaving 380 people without work.

It was the second night in a row the group had gathered. First, at a bar; this time on the covered porch of technician Andy SinClaire, just a few hundred yards from the entrance to Hatfield's Ferry. Three years ago, Mr. SinClaire bought the house so he could walk to work.

The gatherings started after a meeting with FirstEnergy personnel one week after the initial announcement yielded more frustration than answers. Can some of the employees be transferred to other jobs in the company? How much will they receive in severance pay? Will their pensions be cut? They are still waiting to hear.

"First, we were shocked. Then we were upset. Now, we're just angry," said Gregg Jerome of Uniontown, an electrician at the plant.

The employees are mainly from Greene, Fayette and Washington counties. Many started at the plants soon after high school and some have stayed for more than 30 years. Others were transferred to Hatfield's Ferry and Mitchell when FirstEnergy closed six coal-fired power plants in Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania last year.

Those at Hatfield thought the plant would surely be safe from closure, as Allegheny Energy invested $650 million on scrubbers meant to eliminate sulfur and mercury emissions just four years ago.

If the workers lived somewhere else, losing a job in the power business might not be as stressful. But in Pennsylvania, where coal-fired power production has decreased 28 percent since 2005, there are few, if any, jobs that can replace what the workers at Hatfield's Ferry and Mitchell had: regular hours, salaries between $22 and $30 per hour, and good benefits, all without a college education.

"I understand the importance of regulations and clean air," said technician David Donaldson, 45. "But ask Obama this -- what good is green energy to me if I can't support my family?"

It's the question that is asked over and over again by the men gathered on the porch, standing in the shadow of the plant itself.

Men like 29-year-old Mr. Jerome, who in the past year has bought a house and had his first child, a son named Dominic. "I'll do anything to support him. I just don't want to be a failure in his eyes," he said.

Jim Premoshis, 53, who is barely more than a year away from receiving his full pension. "I grew up inside that place. It's all I've ever known," Mr. Premoshis said.

And Eric Verbosky, 24, whose father and brother also will lose their jobs. "My mom has been crying for days. She knows this might break up our family."

But when the workers are asked what they are most worried about, all eyes glance to Mr. Christner.

The 28-year-old's string of difficulties started on an afternoon in September, when he called home to check on his wife Michelle and his two children.

"Mommy is sleeping," Mr. Christner's then-6-year-old daughter Brianna told him. When he sent his sister-in-law to his house, she found Mrs. Christner dead. A brain aneurysm had taken her life, without a single warning sign.

Today, Mr. Christner feels backed into a corner. If he leaves Brownsville with Brianna and Connor to take a new job, he moves away from the only family he has. If he stays, he doesn't know how he will support his children.

And he won't be receiving the pension promised to those who have worked at the plant for five years -- it closes two weeks before his term was set to begin.

"I never thought I could lose my wife and my job in a year," Mr. Christner said. "I want to move forward, but I don't know where to."

FirstEnergy will hold another meeting with Hatfield and Mitchell employees on Tuesday. Until then, it's a waiting game for workers, politicians and community members.

"I'm sick to my stomach over it," said state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson. "We're getting an onslaught of visits, calls, emails and even Facebook messages asking for help ... and asking how to file for unemployment."

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Jessica Contrera: jcontrera@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1458. Twitter: @mjcontrera. First Published July 21, 2013 4:00 AM


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