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 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 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.