After Decades, Dirty Power Plant to Clean Up Its Act
27 May 2014
By Dina Cappiello and Kevin Begos, The Associated Press
HOMER CITY, Pa. — Three years ago, the operators of one of the
nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants warned of “immediate and
devastating” consequences from the Obama administration’s push to
clean up pollution from coal.
Faced with cutting sulfur dioxide pollution blowing into downwind
states by 80 percent in less than a year, lawyers for EME Homer
City Generation L.P. sued the Environmental Protection Agency to
block the rule, saying it would cause it grave harm and bring a
painful spike in electricity bills.
None of those dire predictions came to pass.
Instead, the massive Western Pennsylvania power plant is expected
in a few years to turn from one of the worst polluters in the
country to a model for how coal-fired power plants can slash
The story of the Homer City plant reflects the precarious position
of older coal-fired plants these days, squeezed between cheap and
plentiful natural gas and a string of environmental rules the
Obama administration has targeted at coal, which supplies about 40
percent of the nation’s electricity. The latest regulation, the
first proposal to curb carbon dioxide from power plants, is due
next week. It will pose yet another challenge to coal-fired power
plants. Dozens of coal-fueled units already have announced that
they would close because of the new rules.
Homer City shows how political and economic rhetoric sometimes
doesn’t match reality. Despite claims by Republicans and industry
supporters that the Obama administration’s regulations will shut
down coal-fired power plants, Homer City survived — partly because
it bought itself time by tying up the regulation in courts. Even
environmental groups that applaud each coal plant closing and
protested Homer City’s pollution, now say the facility is setting
a benchmark for air pollution control that other coal plants
should follow, even if it took decades.
“If there is a war on coal, that plant won,” said Eric Schaeffer,
the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and
a former enforcement official at the EPA.
The owners of the massive Pennsylvania power plant — which
releases more sulfur dioxide than any other power plant in the
United States — have committed to install $750 million worth of
pollution control equipment by 2016 that will make deeper cuts in
sulfur than the rule it once opposed.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the EPA’s rule in the
case initiated by Homer City Generating Station.
GE Energy Financial Services, the plant’s majority owner, now says
it can do it — and without electricity bills increasing for the 2
million households it provides with power.
“We believe in the plant’s long-term value, and that installing
equipment will enable it to comply with environmental
regulations,” said Andy Katell, a spokesman for GE, which has been
the plant’s primary owner since 2001 and did not participate in
the litigation. The operator of the facility, Edison Mission
Energy, couldn’t raise the money to pay for the pollution controls
and filed for bankruptcy before the case made it to the Supreme
Court. Numerous states, environmental groups and other companies
operating power plants joined the litigation, keeping it alive.
Not all have fared so well. The parent company of Luminant,
another challenger to the EPA rule and Texas’ largest power
generator, filed for bankruptcy in April after it was faced with
more stringent environmental regulations and cheap natural gas
prices that made it difficult to pay down its debt.
For more than 40 years, Homer City has spewed sulfur dioxide from
two of its three units completely unchecked, and it still does
because it is largely exempt from federal air pollution laws
passed years after it was built in 1969. Last year, the facility,
released 114,245 tons of sulfur dioxide, more than all of the
power plants in neighboring New York combined.
“It is an emblem, a poster child of the challenge of interstate
air pollution,” said Lem Srolovic, head of the environmental
protection bureau for the New York Attorney General’s Office.
New York, along with New Jersey and Pennsylvania and the EPA, sued
Homer City in 2011, arguing that it was operating in violation of
the Clean Air Act because it failed to install pollution control
technology in the 1990s when it made upgrades that increased
emissions. A federal judge dismissed the case, arguing that it
fell outside the statute of limitations.
However, U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry said he appreciated
the frustration “that society at large continues to bear the brunt
of significant sulfur dioxide emissions from that grandfathered
A class-action lawsuit filed by local citizens to get the plant to
clean up its pollution also failed, and the Sierra Club appealed
the plant’s plans to control sulfur dioxide, securing a settlement
in 2012 that requires it to show that it will not exceed sulfur
“It should be the new standard for coal plant permits in the
country,” said Tom Schuster, who heads the Sierra Club’s Beyond
Coal campaign in Pennsylvania. “When coal-fired power plants are
held responsible, the health and quality of life benefits far
outweigh any cost.”
The EPA estimates that about 30 percent of the coal-fired units in
the United States are operating without scrubbers, pollution
control equipment to control not only for sulfur dioxide, but also
mercury, a toxic metal that will be controlled for the first time
from power plants next year. The scrubbers are called that because
they “scrub” the sulfur out of the smoke released by coal-burning
All must install them soon, or be retired, to meet new EPA rules.
Homer City received a year-long extension on the deadline from
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.
“They will be the last of the existing power plants installing
scrubbers,” Vince Brisini, a deputy secretary for the DEP, said of
Homer City. “Those that don’t have scrubbers will not survive.”
For the 1,687 people who live in Homer City, where the power
plant’s towering smokestacks have long served as a local landmark,
many are relieved that the plant’s 255 jobs are staying put, for
now. In the future, the plant likely will have to reduce
smog-forming nitrogen oxides further, to comply with the rule the
Supreme Court revived last month. It also must comply with
upcoming rules to reduce the gases blamed for global warming.
“I’m all in favor of saving the environment,” said Rob Nymick, the
borough manager, “but it’s also important to have jobs in this
area. We lose the power plant, we’re in trouble.”
Locals also are glad they no longer are in the crosshairs of a
national debate over the future of coal-fired power.
“This should have happened years ago, but let’s move forward,”
state Sen. Don White said at a public hearing in 2012, “and the
Sierra Club can go back to California, join arms around a redwood
tree and quit messing with our lives.”
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