Representatives from American Electric Power, the Sabine Mining Company, local governments and members of the public met at the Harrison County courthouse Tuesday evening to discuss the upcoming closure of the Pirkey Power Plant in Hallsville by the third quarter of 2023.
Topics covered at the meeting included the loss of over 300 employees at both the mine and power plant, how local power supply will be affected by the loss of Pirkey’s generation and what AEP and mine authorities will do with their land after the plant is decommissioned.
“Our plan and our goal for this whole process is to be a good steward, not only of our customer dollars, but also our community,” AEP External Affairs Manager Mark Robinson said. “Making sure that this continues to be a great place to learn, work and play.”
Pirkey and the Sabine Mine closure are expected to take away around $22 million in sales and economic output from the Hallsville/Marshall area economy after they shut down, although Sabine Mine President Andy Hawbaker said all but 26 of the mine’s around 130 employees have already found work outside the mine.
Rush Harris, the Marshall Economic Development Corporation executive director, said Harrison County communities should try to keep the plant and mine’s highly skilled workforce to contribute to other industrial jobs in the area. Marshall’s higher education institutions may create opportunities for workers to learn new skills in other fields, too, so the Marshall EDC is collaborating with local educators to accommodate workers.
The closures will affect tax incomes for local school districts as well, culminating into an estimated $2 million loss for Marshall ISD and $300,000 loss for Hallsville schools. Economic outlook reports from the Marshall EDC estimate that the tax reductions would represent the loss of 40 positions at MISD, and six teacher positions at HISD.
Robinson said AEP is closing the plant and mine due in part to new federal regulations on coal ash disposal.
The EPA regulations, approved as a national minimum in 2015 and adopted by the State of Texas in 2020, mandate that coal ash disposal ponds and landfills must be lined with solid barriers to prevent harmful chemicals in the ash from leaking into local soil and groundwater resources.
“You’re talking about a 36-year-old power plant. You have to start making those financial decisions much like you would with an older vehicle,” Robinson said. “Do I even put new tires on a vehicle that’s 25 years old? Or do I run them to the point where it’s like, ‘Okay, now I need to let the car go.’ That’s where we’re at with the power plant. It’s to the point where we could not feel like we were good stewards of our customers’ dollars and invest additional monies [in the plant].”
Although officially retiring Pirkey in mid-2023, AEP will cease coal-burning operations and coal disposal at the plant in late March of that year.
AEP will still deliver power to the areas around Pirkey with electricity produced by the Southwest Power Pool, a system of electricity generators spanning from Northern portions of Texas to the Canadian border with Montana and North Dakota.
“Pirkey serves a local region, but it serves as part of the power pool and uses the transmission lines of the power pool,” Sabine Mine President Andy Hawbaker said. “If we need more power in Missouri, it might be going that way. Electrons are like water. Once it’s in the pipe, and it’s alive, they don’t care. It’s just going wherever the pressure takes it.”
As the mine winds down operations, SMC will follow up their digging work with reclamation, planting grasses and trees on land where coal has been extracted. Miners have moved an estimated 1.7 billion cubic yards of earth across 40,000 acres of contracted land during the mine’s 37 years of operation.
Pirkey will leave behind substation and generation infrastructure at Pirkey Lake that Robinson said AEP could potentially utilize for solar energy production. The company is looking for opportunities to expand into the renewables sector with changing market conditions, but has no plans yet to bring new generation to the Pirkey site.
Overall, AEP and SMC’s land assets in the Marshall/Hallsville area total over $275 million. AEP’s property includes the Pirkey Plant and its adjoining lake, which serves as a recreational hotspot for local communities. Brandy Branch Reservoir will remain at the site for an estimated 10 years without additional water pumping into the lake, but water pumps from Lake O’ The Pines, which feeds Brandy Branch, will stay in place for the time being.
“We’re very fortunate that out there at the site, we have rail, they have water, they have great electricity and the infrastructure there for some major developments,” Marshall EDC Executive Director Rush Harris said. “This is a great regional opportunity for us to try and make something together.”
The meeting was sponsored by the Just Transition Fund, a nonpartisan grantmaking organization helping coal communities navigate economic transitions away from fossil fuels. AEP and the Fund will collaborate on future meetings in the Marshall and Hallsville area by next year, with dates and times to be determined.