After decades, dirty power plant to get clean

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 pollution.

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 earth-warming 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 have already announced they would close in the face of new rules.

But Homer City also shows how political and economic rhetoric sometimes doesn’t match reality. Despite claims by Republicans and industry critics 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.