By Gerald E. Smith
At the Wednesday night, March 14, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection hearing in Homer City on the proposed scrubbers at the Homer City Power Plant, I was among the small group of community members who, thanks to inflammatory remarks from state Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, had to be escorted to the parking lot by security guards for our own protection.
Before that, I heard speaker after speaker state what I know is true -- that folks in Indiana County are hard-working, skilled people who deserve family-wage jobs. I live in Indiana with my family. I support community growth and organized labor, and I appreciate that nothing builds community like good jobs.
An injection of $750 million for scrubbers would be a huge economic boom to this region, and it was encouraging to see so many of the people in the audience who would benefit from that boom. I also heard a few brave souls stand up to question the wisdom of spending so much money on a dying industry with such an unhealthy legacy.
Personally, I agree with both sides. And I'm hoping rational and creative heads will work to respond to both of these real problems.
However, Sen. White blew the opportunity for this real conversation in his opening statements by framing it as a fight between environmentalists and working families. In a purely political move, he championed this short-term fix and ignored the long-term problem of a county that's over-committed to an energy source that's on the decline.
The fact is that it doesn't matter much whether DEP grants the permits, whether labor leaders or workers at the plant support it, or whether the Sierra Club can sway public opinion.
What matters is the money. The senior vice president of General Electric Co., representing plant owners ultimately responsible for coming up with the $725 million, made no promises in his testimony when he said that they would keep the plant open depending on "negotiations" that he couldn't talk about. GE is trying to co-finance the scrubber deal with investors.
Guess what GE has no trouble finding investors for? Renewable energy: GE is the second-largest purchaser of wind power in the country. It is a massive corporation, and it didn't get that way by doubling down on yesterday's ideas.
The unfortunate conflict between community members displays a failure of leadership. Leaders like Sen. White are not dealing with the reality that unless we're proactive in expanding our economy from a dependence on coal in the long term, we will all be out of work, and our economy will continue to shrink.
If you work in the industry, Wednesday night was a great meeting to celebrate the hard-working folks of Indiana County. Thanks to Sen. White, it was a slightly scary meeting for anyone sitting with other Sierra Club members.
For the DEP, it was likely a pointless meeting. Department officials said in their comments that they will almost certainly grant the permit for the scrubbers.
For GE, the meeting illustrated that this is a region where elected officials and labor leaders are holding on to coal with clenched fists and blinders on and do not welcome investment in renewable energy.
Frankly, considering GE's commitment to investing in alternative energy everywhere else in the country, I think that was the wrong message to send.
Gerald E. Smith is a founder of the Indiana County environmental group Coalition for a Healthy County. He resides in Indiana, Pa.