Interagency Working Group Forum Explores Post-Power Plant Future of Indiana County

For more than two hours Wednesday afternoon June 12, the post-power plant future of Indiana County was a topic for discussion by some 100 stakeholders at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.

The turnout prompted Indiana County Commissioner Robin A. Gorman to applaud how “our community has really responded” to the effort of IWG, the Interagency Working Group on Coal & Power Plant Communities & Economic Revitalization.

IWG stated as its mission to “ensure no communities are left behind in the energy transition.” It was established by Executive Order 14008, signed by President Joe Biden on Jan. 27, 2021, with the aim of tackling a climate crisis at home and abroad, as federal agencies to use their power and resources to support robust climate action and environmental justice.

IWG, as it is also known, came to the Indiana University of Pennsylvania complex to tout what it could do for what is being called the Three Rivers Corridor, an area that includes counties through which the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers flow.

Oddly enough, the Three Rivers Corridor as described in federal statutory guidance does not include Indiana County, though IWG officials said they welcome stakeholders from the county, which is tied in with other Three Rivers Corridor counties through the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

“We are really building toward a better partnership here in Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Briggs White, deputy executive director of IWG, which seeks to identify and coordinate opportunities to connect energy communities for federal investments to help ensure good-paying union jobs, economic revitalization and remediating environmental degradation in a shift to a clean energy economy.

“It is to help our communities leverage federal assistance,” Gorman said.

It also prompted questions.

The lack of involvement in the Three Rivers Corridor was pointed out by Homer City Borough Manager Rob Nymick, who also directs the Central Indiana County Water Authority. He expressed concern over the condition of Two Lick Creek — which is part of the river system that eventually feeds the Allegheny River.

Nymick, who soon will be a grandfather for the first time, said he wanted his grandchildren to have clean water, clean air “and a heck of a better environment.”

The executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning & Development, provided some insight into community needs, goals and objectives in this county.

Included were two major entities, IUP and Indiana Regional Medical Center.

The executive director pointed out IRMC’s creation of a Rural Family Medicine Residency Program, ongoing construction of a Behavioral Health Building, and other facility improvements.

The ICOPD director also noted IUP’s plan for a college of osteopathic medicine, its part in the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, its Entrepreneurial Makerspace that also has extensions in Armstrong and Cambria counties, and the Aerium EASSE Drone Network

ICOPD offers business park development, with Windy Ridge in White Township, 119 Business Park in Center Township and Corporate Campus in Burrell Township.

Goals and objectives listed include job/career opportunities, the attraction and retention of talent, a reversing of the trend toward a lower population — though it was predicted last year that Indiana actually may gain population in coming decades — and the stabilizing and growth of the tax base.

Community needs listed include economic and workforce development, workforce training and education, primary and secondary education, broadband deployment now ongoing across the county, improvements to U.S. Route 422 as well as local roads and bridges and other infrastructure, housing, entrepreneurship, tourism — for which the KCAC could play a role — and the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center, a multi-county facility planned to share a campus with Westmoreland County Community College’s Indiana Center, Indiana County Technology Center and the Indiana County Conservation District.

Another need is maintenance of the existing rail service, Homer City Mayor Arlene Wanatosky pointed out.

U.S. Department of Energy officials said western Pennsylvania as a whole is one of IWG’s top 25 priority communities, noting that there are communities across Pennsylvania that have long relied on coal mining, coal-fired power plants, and the steel industry for jobs and economic vitality.

The June twelfth KCAC session was one of six scheduled meetings that follow up on a gathering last October at Westmoreland County Community College’s main campus in Youngwood, where new federal initiatives were announced that are aimed at supporting workers, along with economic revitalization and workforce development in Pennsylvania’s energy communities.

Organizers of that October 2023 event made special note in announcing “Catalyzing Economic Development in Pennsylvania’s Energy Communities” about the Homer City Generation LLC plant, which went offline during the summer of 2023 and now is known as Homer City Redevelopment LLC, which according to its LinkedIn profile is “navigating toward a renewable future” in “renewable energy power generation.”

In his overview of Indiana County, the ICOPD executive director said the Homer City station had become a “megasite business development opportunity,” covering more than 3,000 acres, with access to 30,000 gallons of water per minute, utility extensions, and already more than 55 proposals for what could be done with the site once the power plant is demolished.

Railroad improvements also was mentioned, for a site that once utilized a lot of freight service as a coal-burning power plant.

The Indiana County meeting Wednesday followed the first in the series of IWG community meetings earlier this week in Fayette County. Future meetings are scheduled in Washington, Armstrong, Beaver and Greene counties, and all that will be followed up in turn with another round of meetings this fall.

The June twelfth meeting featured a panel including IWG Pennsylvania Rapid Response Team Chair Terri Dean, chief of staff for EPA Region 3 based in Philadelphia; White; SPC Director of Workforce & Economic Development Jennifer Lasser; Danielle Jones of the Interagency Task Force; ICOPD executive director; and Megan Zeigler of Southwestern Pennsylvania or SWPA Municipal Project Hub.

SWPA Municipal Project Hub aims to help local government officials access historic federal infrastructure and clean energy funding by connecting them with the resources, hands-on technical assistance and other support they need to conceptualize, fund and implement high-impact community development projects.

Organizers of that October 2023 event made special note in announcing “Catalyzing Economic Development in Pennsylvania’s Energy Communities” about the Homer City Generation LLC plant, which went offline during the summer of 2023 and now is known as Homer City Redevelopment LLC, which according to its LinkedIn profile is “navigating toward a renewable future” in “renewable energy power generation.”

Dean’s Rapid Response Team has desired outcomes including communities growing and thriving; economies transforming and diversifying; providing training and jobs for workers from a closed plant; and creating new sources of jobs and tax bases by redeveloping a brownfield or reclaiming abandoned mine lands — and White said Pennsylvania has the most orphan gas wells and abandoned mines in the country.

IWG also said Southwestern Pennsylvania has a high concentration of federally identified target areas and issues, including what’s called Justice 40, covering Canoe, Grant, Green and South Mahoning townships in Indiana County; Derry Borough, Derry Township and Vandergrift in Westmoreland County; and the cities of Butler, New Castle, Connellsville, Uniontown, Washington, Arnold, Greensburg, Latrobe and New Kensington.

Gorman said Grant Township’s lack of a tax base comes in part because 77% of that township is state forest land. She also said there are other rural communities without a tax base.

Dr. Susan Boser, an IUP sociology professor and one-time state Senate candidate, said poverty is a problem especially in the less-populated areas of the county.

ICOPD Assistant Director LuAnn Zak said there are beautiful areas in the larger municipalities such as Indiana, Blairsville, Homer City and White and Center townships, but said smaller communities have felt the decline of the coal industry, in such areas as the quality of housing and the availability of affordable and rehabilitated housing.

“Right now, we get scraps from the state and federal governments,” Zak said.

Homer-Center Superintendent Ralph J. Cecere Jr. said there are needs in his district including two buildings in need of $12.5 million worth of heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs.

Dr. Carolyn Princes, president of the Indiana County NAACP, said the focus on infrastructure should be accompanied by a focus on the individual.

“How are we reaching out to individual people in the community?” she asked.

Individuals also could include those who worked at Homer City — and still work, at least for now, at power plants in Seward, New Florence and near Shelocta.

Comparing what EPA is doing to what happened because of Trade Assistance Adjustment policies, Aric Baker, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 459, said EPA was providing more regulations “that are directly unemploying people, including my co-workers.”

It prompted White to say, “Let’s get in front of Keystone (Shelocta) and Conemaugh (New Florence)” before their scheduled closings later in this decade.

Another member of the audience, Dr. Erick Lauber of IUP and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, urged a return of the old Self Employment Assistance Program. As it still exists in other states, SEAP allows people who are out of work and meet certain requirements to start their own business while collecting Unemployment Insurance benefits.

To questions about the involvement, or lack thereof, of the private sector, White also said the private sector “absolutely … belongs at the table.”

Dean said “that is obviously an area that is worth exploration.”

Included in IWG are the Office of the President, the cabinet departments of the Treasury, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Energy and Education, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

One stakeholder in the audience asked about why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains rivers throughout western Pennsylvania, was not included. After the two-hour KCAC forum, organizers said it could be expanded to include the Corps.

The IWG panel at the KCAC touted “once-in-a-generation” funding now available, including more than $100 billion in infrastructure investments through the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and other funds and credits through the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

IWG said its early accomplishments include over $22 billion in federal funding directed toward energy communities, and $5 billion per month in private investment in energy communities.

More about IWG can be found at energycommunities.gov.