By Tim Bugaile
Indiana, Pa — MaryAnn Steffee has lived in Homer City for the past 40 years.
It’s where she raised her kids. It’s where she’s watching her grandchildren grow up. But Homer City is not where Steffee would choose to live if she could start over.
“I’m not going to pack up and leave,” she said during a Sept. 26 phone interview. “But if I had my life over, I wouldn’t live here.”
From 1997-2005 Steffee served on the Homer City council. One of her priorities was pushing for the Midwest Generations Power Plant in Homer City to clean up its coal-burning act.
Steffee said the plant’s air pollution has gotten into her house in the form of a greasy dust. She’s had to replace her living room furniture three times in the past six years.
Steffee said worries about the plant’s health effects on Homer City residents and those who live within a few miles of the town. She knows the numbers that stack up against the plant.
According to scorecard.org, a widely cited non-profit environmentalist Web site, Indiana County in 2002 “ranked among the dirtiest/worst 10 percent of all counties in the U.S. in terms of total environmental releases.” The county’s top polluter in 2002 was the Homer City power plant, according to the Web site.
The Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit public interest group in Washington, D.C., funded by individuals and foundations, researched the county’s air pollution. A 2003 study by the group reported the plant was the fourth worst in the nation for sulfur dioxide pollution.
According to a Nov. 18, 2002, report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Homer City plant was second on a list of the 10 worst sites for toxic releases, including for a special category of toxic chemicals that accumulate in living tissue.
In 2002, the plant attempted to clean things up. The Edison Mission Group, the company that owns Midwest Generations and the Homer City plant, installed a $270 million scrubber, according to Susan Olavarria, director of communications for EMG. The scrubber, known as a “selective catalytic reduction system,” shows the plant is doing its fair share to improve air quality in Homer City and around the United States.
“We try to be a responsible company,” Olavarria said from her office in downtown Chicago during an Oct. 9 phone interview. “We have been non-stop making changes and upgrades. We’ve never been in violation of nitrogen oxide or sulfur oxide emissions. We’re always well below the federal EPA limits.”
The plant may have reduced its nitrogen and sulfur oxide emissions. But other chemicals are escaping the three 1,216-foot stacks.
According to a July 10 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Homer City plant ranks 43 rd in the nation among plants emitting carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming.
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In a 2006 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, the plant ranked among the “50 dirtiest” in the nation. The report said the plant is 9 th in the nation in sulfur dioxide emission, yielding nearly 107,000 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2006.
Sulfur dioxide is a chemical that interacts to form acid rain, which damages forests and puts acid into water and soil. The Harvard School of Public Health said in the 2006 EIP report that sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants “significantly harm the cardiovascular systems and respiratory health of those who live near the plants.” According to Environmental Protection Agency studies, fine particle pollution from power plants result in thousands of premature deaths each year.
The Homer City plant also ranks 33rd in the nation in pounds of mercury produced per year. The plant is responsible for 633 pounds of the chemical, a “highly toxic metal, that once released into the atmosphere, settles into lakes and rivers, where it moves up the food chains to humans,” according to the EIP report.
The Homer City plant’s $270 million scrubber only scratches the surface of air-quality problems, one environmental health expert suggests.
According to Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health of the American Lung Association mid-Atlantic region, ozone remains a concern for Indiana County residents, regardless of steps taken by the power plants in the region.
Indiana County would earn a grade of ‘D’ for ozone,” Stewart said in an Oct. 16 email.
Ozone, a pollutant at lower levels of earth’s atmosphere, is formed by the reaction of sunlight on air containing hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. The lung association hopes that existing ozone standards are made more stringent.
If so, “the grade for Indiana County could well drop to the ‘F’ range,” Stewart added.
Maryann Steffee is waiting, but not optimistic about Homer City’s air quality.
“There is absolutely no progress,” said Steffee. “It’s a losing battle.”