Prove your humanity

The Homer City Generating Station looms like a cathedral in the landscape of Indiana County, Pennsylvania. The plant can be seen for miles in the western foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.

Four years ago, Homer City—in operation since 1969—was faced with a choice: Either clean up to comply with new EPA air rules or close its doors. The rules were the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). To comply, the coal-fired power plant would have to install extensive controls on mercury, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter emanating from its smokestacks. It would not be easy. The plant was one of the biggest sulfur dioxide emitters in the country.

“You basically either put on the pollution controls or you [had to] stop running,” said James Shapiro, Senior Vice President at GE Energy Financial Services, which owns the plant.

The total cost of the upgrades was $750 million.

LISTEN: “A power plant cleans up”

Standing in front of a brand new building at the plant, Shapiro explained the steep price tag.

“Just look at the size of this project,” Shapiro said, pointing to a tall crane used to lift 300,000 pound ducts into place. Workers scrambled to hook up steel beams to be tied into place at two new scrubbing units.

“We’re not talking about a snap-on construction project. This is just a huge, huge operation.”

When it’s running at full capacity, in the dead of winter and during the hottest days of the summer, Homer City can power 2 million homes. Electricity streams out of the plant north to New York and into the mid-Atlantic grid that powers Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Coal provides around 40 percent of the nation’s electricity, but that number has fallen in recent years. The EPA’s new pollution rules play some part in that fall, though much of the blame has been placed on bargain-basement prices for natural gas.

Around 200 old coal plants have decided to close around the country in recent years. About 50 miles south of Homer City, FirstEnergy chose to close its Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station rather than comply with the new EPA standards. The company said low natural gas prices had also made that plant less competitive.

Rob Nymick, borough manager for the town of Homer City, said most people in the area wanted to see the plant stay open—not only for the jobs at the plant but for the spin-off jobs that the plant supported in coal hauling, cement plants and construction.

“If the power plant closes, it will cripple this township,” said Nymick. “Homer City is a nice place because of the jobs we have here. If you start losing the jobs, you don’t know what we’re going to have. We’re going to have a ghost town.”

Todd Kollross is the project manager overseeing the installation of pollution controls at Homer City. Photo: Reid FrazierTodd Kollross is the project manager overseeing the installation of pollution controls at Homer City. Photo: Reid Frazier

Over the decades, the plant has continued to add pollution controls as the EPA has steadily increased its pollution requirements under the Clean Air Act.

But in recent years, the plant has still ranked as one of the largest emitters of sulfur dioxide in the country. That will change with the new pollution devices. Those devices are much needed, according to Tom Schuster of the Sierra Club.

“Levels of pollution we used to think are safe are not safe anymore,” Schuster said.

Among the coal pollutants environmentalists have been worried about over the years is mercury, a naturally occurring metal and known neurotoxin. The EPA enacted MATS to limit mercury and other harmful pollutants in 2012. After a challenge from industry, the law was sent back to the EPA for a re-write by the Supreme Court this summer. In spite of that decision, it’s still the law of the land, meaning that coal-fired power plants around the country have to comply by an April 2016 deadline.

All told, 77 percent of the country’s coal-fired power fleet has, or will have, installed the requisite emissions controls in 2015 and 2016—the last two years to comply with MATS.

At Homer City, the plant will reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent and particulate matter by 98 percent.

The plant will achieve these reductions by installing two new buildings—novel integrated desulfurization units, or NIDs.

Each unit is housed in a six-story building and takes in exhaust from the coal boilers through massive air ducts.

“Take your furnace and put it on steroids,” says Todd Kollross, project manager at Homer City. “You’re trying to heat your house; we’re trying to take care of 2 million homes.”

Sulfur in the coal is a big cause of pollution, forming harmful gases and particulate matter. In 2013, the plant emitted over 100,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, according to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection records.

To take the sulfur out, Homer City is putting in thousands of air filters.

WATCH: “A Coal Plant Cleans Up”

Inside one of the new units, Kollross stands in a room with hundreds of holes in the floor. Inside each hole is a 30-foot long tube, covered by a fabric bag.

The way it works is simple high school chemistry: The coal exhaust is acidic, so the plant will spray it with an alkaline powder. The powder will react with the gas and particulates in the exhaust and form a solid. The filters catch the solids as they’re blown through, like a Shop Vac filter catches dust.

Eventually, the harmful pollution will be put into a specially designed landfill.

“The timetable on this thing was really tight and the teamwork was incredible. I had my doubts we were going to make our deadline,” Kollross said.

But ultimately, the plant will meet its final deadline of April.

There’s one small problem though. Those new filters don’t take out carbon dioxide, the main culprit in global warming. And the EPA plans to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants.

So just in case, Homer City is applying with the grid regulator for the mid-Atlantic region for permission to use cleaner-burning natural gas.