Coal-less future on horizon

Community has 12 years to plan

REDFIELD -- The proposed shutoff of coal at the 35-year-old White Bluff coal plant neighboring Redfield's south side has been a long time coming for residents of the 1,500-person town and for the White Hall School District.

"You should've begun to think four or five years ago how we would replace that industry," Redfield Chamber of Commerce President Todd Dobbins said.

"I've been here nine years, and we've been talking about this for nine years," White Hall School District Superintendent Larry Smith said. The school district is the biggest local beneficiary of taxes from the coal plant. The good news, Smith said, is his district has 12 years to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Redfield Mayor Harmon Carter noted that the city doesn't benefit from taxes to the extent the school district does.

"Most all of the tax dollars from that plant goes to the White Hall School District," Carter said.

The good news, Carter added, is that the phasing out of coal and certain emissions will make the town cleaner and help people in the area with respiratory issues.

On Aug. 7, Entergy Arkansas officials proposed phasing out coal use by 50 percent in 2027 and 100 percent in 2028 at the 1,700-megawatt plant, which sits just off of Arkansas 365 in east Jefferson County, in response to a 1999 rule passed by Congress on haze pollution, called the Regional Haze Rule. Rather than spend what the company estimated to be $1.1 billion on emissions-reducing retrofits, officials opted for more viable long-term replacement that's less likely to be the target of federal regulations.

Officials intend to replace the electricity produced at the plant with natural gas, solar and/or wind. Decisions on what type, when or where the replacement electricity will be produced will come later, should the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency OK the phase-out of coal as a part of compliance with the Regional Haze Rule.

The Regional Haze Rule applies to visibility at national wildlife areas, although proponents note that it will benefit the health of people with asthma. Coal has been targeted more recently for carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

Whether the company will keep replacement energy production in the Redfield area is unknown at this point, Entergy spokesman Julie Munsell said. But the company won't abandon the community, Munsell said, because it will continue to serve the area.

"We're still going to be a corporate citizen and neighbor in those communities," she said.

Entergy Arkansas has made recent investments in an 81-megawatt solar farm near Stuttgart and a 495-megawatt natural gas facility in El Dorado. Officials said those projects will not replace White Bluff, and were pursued because of expected growth and expected closure of smaller sources of electricity in the state.

The city has time until the proposed 2028 shut-off date, and Dobbins, 53, said he'll seek advice from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission on how to grow industry in the town, located south of Little Rock and west of Pine Bluff. He said the town has a lot of opportunity to grow because of its close proximity to the capital city but that local leadership has to be more aggressive in attracting new business.

Dobbins is not holding his breath on jobs resulting from converting the White Bluff plant to natural gas.

Neither is Reece Groomes, 38, who began working in plant operations in 2008, along with several other people whom he said wouldn't be nearing retirement age by the time the plant phases out coal.

He said natural gas is more advanced and efficient technology, and it requires maybe one-third or one-fourth the employees working per shift.

Groomes said he's not worried about his own job, however, as he's moved into compliance at a corporate level, overseeing plants other than White Bluff. He just works at the plant now.

Conley Byrd Jr., a Jefferson County Quorum Court member from Redfield, recalled an event called Powerfest when he was president of the Redfield Chamber of Commerce. The event celebrated the plant's history in the city since construction began in the late 1970s.

"I hope they could still use the facility in some way with some of the alternatives," he said, adding that he would prefer if nothing changed and coal-firing could continue.

Smith, at the White Hall School District, sees a tax benefit from converting the plant, as opposed to shutting it down.

"If they end up converting the whole thing to gas, that would be great," Smith said. But he's not sure that will happen.

He notes groups like the Sierra Club lobby against natural gas in favor of entirely emissions-free, renewable energy, which natural gas is not.

If the plant closed completely, Smith estimates a loss of more than $1 million to the school district, which has an annual budget of $25 million.

"That's 17 teaching positions that you would lose funding for," Smith said. "We couldn't cut 17 teachers right now because we would be out of compliance with standards."

The school district closed Redfield Middle School in 2013 because of low enrollment and reduced financial viability.

But the city is not shrinking and is not exactly going the way of small Delta towns that are a fraction of what they used to be.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Redfield's population was 1,527 in 2014, up from 1,157 in 2000. The city, dotted with older homes and new subdivisions, had an estimated unemployment rate of 9.5 percent among residents 20 to 64 years old in 2013, and median household income in Redfield was $56,528, according to the Bureau's American Community Survey estimates from 2013.

Dobbins wants to replace the jobs White Bluff provides to keep the town on the growth trajectory it's on.

By Carter's and Dobbins' assessments, the vast majority of the plant's 110 employees already are from outside Redfield. Before, more lived in the city and the plant employed well over 300 people.

But Dobbins also points to temporary workers when he talks about the impact of the plant on the city today.

They eat at the city's restaurants and go to the city's convenience stores, he said.

Steve Young, 49, and Jason Peterson, 36, are working on a construction project at the substation next door, where electricity is distributed from the plant. They're temporary workers who won't be affected by the shutdown of coal in 13 years.

On Wednesday, Young and Peterson took a lunch break at the Mammoth Orange Cafe on the northeast corner of Sheridan Road and Arkansas 365, where they talked about how the plant was cleaner than other coal plants they've been to and guessed as to what would happen next in the fast-changing world of electricity production.

"We've got to have electricity, that's all I know," Peterson said.

While Dobbins notes that the plant employs only a small number of people from Redfield, he said those jobs and temporary jobs can still have an impact on a small community when they provide customers to businesses and growth in the city's sales tax revenue.

"When it's your only industry, it plays a vital role," he said.

Metro on 08/16/2015

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