CONESVILLE — Even as the American Electric Power plant in Conesville plans to shutdown at the end of May, a camaraderie and loyalty to the company among employees still exists.

This can be seen in several retirees who have returned to get the coal-fired plant that opened in 1957 through its waning days. As other employees get new jobs or move to new positions in AEP, the local facility still has to operate and hiring new employees or bringing in workers from other plants certainly isn't feasible. Those moving to other positions in the company would have to stay if there wasn't someone to take their place.

About 10 have come back so far with more possible before the closure. Most of those are in the instrument and control/electrical division. Two are in unit operations/supervision. Erich Skelley, former energy production superintendent, has returned as a safety and health, security and human performance associate. He said it's common for AEP to bring back employees to help close plants down.

Skelley said their three main goals right now are to prevent any physical injuries and environmental problems, and use the coal pile still on the property. While some shutdown work will come as May 31 nears, it's still business as usual most days. Something the retirees, all with 30 years or more experience, don't mind getting back into the swing of one last time. While all are sad to see the plant close, they understand the reasons and feel it has had a good run.

With most similar coal-fired plants having a lifespan of about 40 years, the one in Conesville bested that by more than 20 years. However, the facility couldn't keep up with demands in a competitive generator market for energy. Units 5 and 6 are no longer operational. Unit 4, the largest with the newest upgrades, will operate until the end. Including the retirees, there are almost 100 employees still there.

Retirees return

Ray Durben retired in 2013 after nearly 36 years of service. He was golfing one day with a member of plant management who told him about the need for workers as others left. He later got a call from Les Davis, supervisor of the electrical team, who asked him to return.

"They're running out of people. I wanted to come back to try and help," Durben said. "Coming back and stepping in with some of these kids, well they're not kids anymore now, working with them has been a pretty good time."

Bill Bible retired in 2010 with 39 years of service. A golf game also opened the door to him coming back and he's glad he took it.

"It's feeling needed mostly. I enjoyed it when I was here before," Bible said.

Keith McCoy retired in 2013 too, after 40 years of service. One thing that brought him back was the challenge as he knew some things had changed. However, a lot has stayed the same and most of the guys feel as if it's the old saying of once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget.

"One of the unique things I kind of like is when I started here I had the opportunity to do checkout on Unit 4. It was a new unit just starting up. I thought it might be nice to help start the unit up and help shut it down," McCoy said. "When you first started here you thought anyone and everyone had a job for life. It's kind of a sad now to see the plant shutting down completely."

Culture still positive

Davis said his team has 11 members with six currently being retirees. He's grateful to the retirees who have returned, not only for their experience but it allows employees to go elsewhere. For those staying with AEP, it could mean them missing out on a new position if they would have to stay. Davis said most of the retirees replaced people who went elsewhere in AEP. Skelley said Davis' workers have very employable skill sets, leaving to their movement.

"The biggest reason they're here is to allow guys who work here who are younger the opportunity to go and continue their career other places," Davis said. "We're trying to allow them the opportunity to continue their career."

Jim Waibel is currently working in emissions monitoring. He retired in 2013 after 40 years of service. He returned to lead some training in 2018 and was then asked this year to return as a worker.

"I always enjoyed working here. You have a pretty good variety of work. You weren't doing the same thing every time," Waibel said. "I'm retired and I don't have to work, but if it will help people to move on and I can have a good time, then great."

Skelley was with AEP for almost 42 years and retired in 2018. He, like some of the others, felt like he had an obligation to help. He didn't think the plant would be a good place to work because of the situation, but he was stunned at what he saw on a visit.

"I thought I didn't want to go back there. Everybody coming to work grumpy all the time, I don't want to be part of that. Guess what? That's not what I found when I got here. I thought 'why wouldn't I want to be part of that,'" Skelley said. "The culture here is amazing for the predicament we're in."