Atikokan plant closure will be felt across district

Besides dealing a hard blow to the economy of Atikokan, the provincial government’s announcement last Wednesday that the Ontario Power Generation’s coal-fired plant there will close in 2007 likely will have a ripple effect right across Rainy River District.
Energy minister Dwight Duncan revealed his government’s plan to eradicate coal-fired generation from the province last week—a plan many saw as another broken promise.
During the 2003 election campaign, Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty promised all five coal plants in Ontario would be closed by the end of 2007. While the Lakeview Generating Station in Mississauga closed in April, Nanticoke GS—the largest pollutant of the five—will not close until 2009.
Lambton GS near Sarnia will be replaced by two gas-fired generating stations while Thunder Bay GS will be converted to gas-fired generation by the end of 2007.
Atikokan GS will close once the conversion at Thunder Bay GS is complete. And according to the Ministry of Energy, “no replacement capacity is required due to load profile of the northwest.”
While the energy created by the plant may not be missed, the jobs and tax revenue it provided will be.
“It’s $7 million in wages, about a third of the economy, 90 good-paying jobs, and over $3 million in taxes,” lamented Atikokan Mayor Dennis Brown.
“Half of all the taxes that Atikokan collects, just about half depending on how it comes out, is collected form the Ontario Power Generating Station,” he added.
Mayor Brown called the government’s decision “devastating.”
“They weren’t listening to reason,” he argued. “The clean coal technology exists, but this government doesn’t appear prepared to listen to it.”
The Atikokan GS, with its capacity of 215 megawatts, produces less than one megatonne of carbon dioxide, about 6.4 kilotonnes of sulphur dioxide, and about 1.2 kilotonnes of oxides of nitrogen annually.
By contrast, the Nanticoke GS produces nearly 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, 84 kilotonnes of sulphur dioxide, and 23 kilotonnes of oxides of nitrogen each year.
Environment Canada already has issued six smog advisories for southwestern Ontario so far this year.
About half of the pollution there comes from coal-fired plants in the U.S. while about another 30 percent can be attributed to vehicles, Mayor Brown noted.
Only about seven percent of the smog-causing pollution is from coal.
“We don’t have any smog days here,” Mayor Brown remarked.
In addition, other provinces continue to build new coal-fired generating stations. “They just opened up a new coal-fired plant in Alberta, the home of natural gas,” Mayor Brown said.
“We’re very upset, very angry, really annoyed at what’s happened here,” he added. “It just seems like they don’t care about what happens to us up here in the north, in the Rainy River District.”
The McGuinty government defended its decision, saying the replacement of coal-fired generation with cleaner sources of energy will reduce pollution significantly.
“Our government’s plan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Canada by up to 30 megatonnes a year, which is equivalent to taking almost seven million cars off the road or removing every car and small truck in Ontario,” said Environment minister Leona Dombrowsky.
“The closure of Ontario’s coal-fired generating stations is expected to provide up to half of the province’s greenhouse gas reduction contributions under the Kyoto Protocol,” she added.
A government study said emissions from all coal-fired stations were responsible for up to 668 premature deaths, 928 hospital admissions, and 1,100 emergency room visits in Ontario per year.
It also found that with an annual cost of $4.4 billion, coal-fired generation is significantly more expensive than other sources of electricity.
Meanwhile, Fort Frances Coun. Tannis Drysdale said the rest of the district will feel the effects of this decision.
“We pay for all our social services, including Rainycrest, based on a formula using assessment, which is the total amount of value of properties in your community,” she explained.
“Right off the top, [Atikokan will] lose $38 million in assessment, which will shift the formula of who pays what,” she added.
And those left jobless from the plant closure may move out of the district altogether—causing Atikokan’s assessment to drop even further.
“When 90 homes go up for sale in a community of 3,500, it’s likely the value of everyone’s homes will go down,” she said. “I would predict they’ll lose about 25 percent of their assessment as a direct result, probably within the first year or 18 months of the closure of the plant.
“That will add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for taxpayers—essentially west of Atikokan—to have to recoup.”
“And the cost of social services won’t diminish. In fact, they might go up,” Coun. Drysdale warned, noting people left out of work may put increased demands on social assistance.
In addition to this increased burden on other district municipalities, Coun. Drysdale noted the province already has planned cuts in transfer payments to Fort Frances for social services in the coming years.
“Our costs will go up at the same time as the province is backing away from their commitment. It’s going to be a rough year,” she said.
In 2006, for instance, payments will be cut by $54,000. In 2007, they will be cut by $137,000. The new formula for social services will send more money to cities in southwestern Ontario.
“It’s quite clear they’re willing to sacrifice us,” Coun. Drysdale charged. “I don’t think it’s the north. I don’t get that feeling in Sudbury. I don’t get that feeling in Sault Ste. Marie. I get that feeling here.
“I’m deeply concerned about the area west of Thunder Bay,” she added. “I don’t know if these are strategic decisions, but one on top of the other, on top of the other, each day is making it harder for these communities to survive.
“How many times does someone push you down the stairs and say that it was just an accident? Maybe by the third time they push you down the stairs, you figure it might be deliberate.
“I would start to question it. I wouldn’t be standing at the top of any staircase with Dalton McGuinty these days,” she quipped.
Despite the grim outlook, Mayor Brown said there is hope for Atikokan and the rest of the district. A total of 14 provincial ministries, including the Ministry of Energy, have committed to working with the town to prevent economic collapse.
“They’ve sent us a letter saying they’re going to work with us to ensure there’s no job loss and the tax base is retained,” he noted. “We feel they must do that. They owe us one now.”
“The Ministry of Energy is working together with Ontario Power Generation and a number of ministries, including Northern Development and Mines, Natural Resources, Economic Development and Trade, and Municipal Affairs and Housing, to assess the impact of closures on the workers and their communities,” the Ministry of Energy said in a press release.
“We’ve got lots of ideas in the community for how we can create those jobs, so maybe this will be an opportunity to move those projects forward on the fast-track,” Mayor Brown reasoned.
The council soon will organize a town hall meeting, he added, “to get opinions from the residents and get them more comfortable that things are going to take place.”
“There’s a lot of people that are down in the dumps and feeling pretty annoyed about it just like I am, but we can’t let it get us down. We have to keep moving forward,” he stressed.
Coun. Drysdale said the good news is that the changes are not set to take place until 2007.
“We have two years to work on it,” she noted. “Mr. McGuinty has two years to prove to this region that he does care and that he does want us to be part of Ontario and that he does value these communities.”
The loss of 90 jobs and half the tax base is a challenge Atikokan is ready to take on, Mayor Brown said.
“We’re not going to give up that easy. We’re going to fight to the end and make sure this community survives,” he vowed.