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WATCH: How a coal plant is cleaning up its act

Reid Frazier, The Allegheny Front

The Homer City Generating Station rises like a cathedral out of a valley in Indiana County, just east of Pittsburgh. You can see its smokestacks and hour-glass shaped cooling towers from miles around. 

Like many coal plants around the country, workers at Homer City are busy installing pollution controls to comply with new clean air rules imposed by the EPA.

These units take out sulfur and other harmful pollutants, like mercury. Total cost? $750 million.

“A lot of people think you can just snap these things on to some existing facility and that’s it. This is a massive, massive construction project, and like any huge construction project, it’s expensive,” said James Shapiro, senior vice president, GE Energy Financial Services.

Two million homes -- that’s how many buildings Homer City can power when it’s running at full capacity. Electricity streams out of the plant north to New York state and into the mid-Atlantic grid that powers Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The new equipment is needed because of clean air rules that the Obama administration imposed on the coal industry. These include the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. When these rules came out about four years ago, Shapiro said Homer City, which opened in 1969, faced a crossroads.

“You didn't have much choice. You basically either put on the pollution controls or you stop running,” Shapiro said.

The Supreme Court sent the rule back to the EPA to rework, but it’s still the law of the land. Around the country, dozens of coal-fired power plants representing three-quarters of the nation’s coal-fired power fleet are adding mercury controls to comply by this year’s deadline. 

About 200 older plants have shut down in recent years -- though cheap natural gas is also to blame for these closures. A shut-down Homer City plant is what many people in the area are afraid of.

“The power plant closes, it will cripple this township,” said Rob Nymick, borough manager for the town of Homer City.

Homer City’s seal includes a depiction of the power plant -- it’s literally painted on the town’s police cars. Sitting in the town’s municipal building, a mile from the plant, Nymick says he’s old enough to remember when the power plant was built in the 1960s.

“I used to hunt that area back when it was farmland,” Nymick said. “I do remember when the power plant was first put on. … I remember when I was a little kid and I would wake up and there would be orange or black particles all over our cars and our houses, and that doesn't happen anymore.”

Over the decades, the plant has continued to add pollution controls as the EPA has steadily increased its pollution requirements. But in recent years, it’s still been ranked as one of the largest emitters of sulfur dioxide in the country. That will change with the new pollution devices.

The power plant closes, it will cripple this township. -- Rob Nymick, borough manager, town of Homer City

Overall, the new rules should improve air quality around the country.

“There will certainly be an improvement, no doubt about it,” said Tom Schuster, campaign representative, Sierra Club. “I think there will still be areas where the air at times will be unsafe to breathe. So, you know, it’s a process of being vigilant and making sure that the regulations are enforced.”

What does it take to keep 100,000 tons of pollution out of the air every year? The answer comes up six flights of stairs at Homer City.

Each boiler at the plant -- where coal is burned to create electricity -- now has a whole building dedicated to cleaning up the coal exhaust. The gas and smoke are piped into big rooms filled with special filtration tubes. The coal exhaust gets sprayed with a special powder that absorbs pollution. Filters -- or bags -- on those tubes in turn absorb that powder, kind of like the filter inside a shop-vac. Instead of dust, it collects pollution, like particulate matter.

Credit Reid Frazier, The Allegheny Front
The Homer City Generating Station in Indiana County, Pennsylvania is installing pollution controls.

A floor below, there’s a big chamber, where the particulate gets collected in solid form. The new system will basically remove 90 percent of the pollution. When the powder absorbs all it can, it’s hauled to a special landfill.

The plant is on schedule to meet its final deadline of April. It will be in compliance with EPA’s air rules, for now.

What will happen as the EPA makes it harder for coal plants to emit carbon dioxide, the main culprit in climate change? Just in case, the plant is applying for permission to start burning natural gas.

-- Reid Frazier, The Allegheny Front

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