State Line closure forcing 'fresh start' for workers near retirement age

2012-01-05T16:00:00Z 2013-04-01T15:24:08Z State Line closure forcing 'fresh start' for workers near retirement ageBy Bowdeya Tweh bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

HAMMOND | It's going to be difficult for William Petrocelli and dozens of other workers to imagine life without State Line Energy power plant.

The coal-fired power plant is expected to close by March 31 after its owner accelerated an earlier announced shutdown timeline. The multiple corporate changes didn't affect the feeling co-workers were like family instead of acquaintances.

"Everyone who used to work there said, 'If you did your job, you'll be set for life,' you know," said Petrocelli, a 51-year-old Chesterton resident who has worked 29 years at the plant. "And well, we almost made it."

There were about 100 employees who remained at State Line in late December, with more defections likely to come before the plant shuts down. The facility employed at least four times as many employees in the 1980s.

Turning out the lights

Some workers argue State Line Energy is highly productive and is being sacrificed to improve the company's environmental profile. But officials from State Line's Richmond, Va.-based parent Dominion Resources Inc. say continuing to operate the facility would hurt the company.

After electricity generation at the 515-megawatt capacity plant ends, Dominion spokesman Dan Genest said employees will have the option of continuing to work through June 30 to complete shutdown efforts. A retention bonus is available for union and salaried employees who stick around in addition to their severance payments and other benefits.

"This is obviously a big shock for the employees," Genest said last month. "This gives them a little more flexibility so they can have a job while they're looking for one."

Workers said the money will help them, but as many as two dozen are frustrated the company isn't being more flexible on terms of retiree medical coverage, said David Weaver, president of United Steelworkers Local 12502, which represents hourly State Line employees. There's a doughnut hole of union employees who are in their 50s and have worked for years at the facility but don't meet the age 55 requirement for continued health coverage.

Weaver, a 57-year-old Glenwood resident who has worked at State Line for 30 years, said the company isn't budging on the union's request to add those employees.

"That's the kick in the backside worse than anything," said Mike Toporis, 53, who started his 34th year working for State Line this year.

Genest said the company understands the concerns and is doing the best it can for workers.

Toporis, of Schererville, said he also hoped current State Line employees would be offered employment within Dominion's operations. Employment isn't guaranteed, but Genest said if they apply for a Dominion position through a special website created for them, their resume would be reviewed.

The economic reality

The State Line plant in Hammond opened in 1929 and has changed owners multiple times before Dominion Resources Inc. paid $182 million in 2002 to acquire the facility from Mirant Corp.

Dominion is a producer and transporter of energy and its operations are conducted through subsidiaries including Virginia Power, which is a regulated utility that provides electricity in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

In an October filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Dominion said it planned to shutter State Line because of a continued decline in power prices and the expected cost to comply with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. The rule, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delayed, requires 27 states to reduce power plant emissions that cross state lines, which affects Indiana and Illinois. The power plant, located on the Hammond-Chicago border near Lake Michigan, has been a heavy air polluter criticized by environmental groups and residents for its health impacts.

Genest also said high prices of coal relative to natural gas also fueled the company's decision, although he said the company chose not to make facility upgrades that would adjust the coal reliance.

"It's not something we wanted to do," Genest said. "It's something that was a business decision that had to be made. It just wasn't economically feasible to continue to run the station."

State Line, which is part of Dominion's merchant power generation business, sells the electricity it produces to wholesale markets. Genest said the company is mulling what to do with the property once electricity generation ceases, but at this point, it has no plan to restart the Hammond operation.

Starting over

Petrocelli, who colleagues call "Rico," said the company gave employees indications the plant was going to close by 2017. But for him that was a fair trade because he could continue working until he was 59. Then he could get retiree health benefits.

But then 2017 became 2014, which became the end of 2012. Now the end is in less than six months.

He said he's worried that he has to try to get a job to support his three children, one of whom is still in eighth grade. As an employee in State Line's operations department, he'd like to find a job with one of the region's large industrial employers.

Tamara Stump, senior workforce associate at the Center of Workforce Innovations, said she's talked to State Line about an Ivy Tech Community College program in energy technology that has a concentration in power plant technology. This year, the organization and other groups will host a job fair and workshops for State Line workers on interviewing, resume writing and information on retraining opportunities.

"You try to keep positive, but it doesn't look good," said Petrocelli, who grew up on Chicago's East Side near the facility. "I don't know how employers would feel about hiring a guy my age in the field I'm in. It's scary."

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