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Dirty coal-fired plant now setting pollution-control standard

Homer City plant owners once sued over EPA regulations but soon could exceed the agency’s sulfur-control standards.
Homer City plant owners once sued over EPA regulations but soon could exceed the agency’s sulfur-control standards.
Published May 28, 2014

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 grave harm and bring a spike in electricity bills.

None of those dire predictions came to pass.

Instead, the massive western Pennsylvania power plant may in a few years turn from one of the worst polluters in the country to a model for how coal-fired power plants can slash pollution.

The story reflects the precarious position of older coal-fired plants, 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.

The EPA estimates that about 30 percent of the coal-fired units in the U.S. are operating without scrubbers, pollution-control equipment to control not only for sulfur dioxide but 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" sulfur out of the smoke released by coal-burning boilers.

But Homer City also shows how political and economic rhetoric sometimes doesn't match reality. Despite claims that the regulations will shut down plants, Homer City survived — partly because it bought itself time by tying up the regulation in courts. Even environmental groups say the facility is setting a benchmark for air pollution control.

"If there is a war on coal, that plant won," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former EPA enforcement official.

Plant owners have committed to install $750 million in pollution-control equipment by 2016 that will make deeper cuts in sulfur than the rule it once opposed.

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