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How Biden’s promise to coal country became a warning for Democrats

INDIANA COUNTY, Pa. — Biden administration officials came here this month with an upbeat message for residents: We will help you navigate the nation’s transition away from fossil fuels.

During a roughly two-hour meeting in a stuffy conference room, officials assured the audience that the federal government hasn’t forgotten about this spot about an hour east of Pittsburgh, where coal mines began closing in the 1980s and the state’s largest coal-fired power plant shut down last year.

Then the venting started. Several residents stood up and expressed frustration that the federal government has forgotten about a place struggling to replace the jobs and tax base that the coal industry once offered it.

“We get overlooked all the time,” said LuAnn Zak, assistant director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development.

“There’s nothing being put out to help energy workers,” said Aric Baker, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 459, which had represented roughly 120 workers now laid off from the Homer City Generating Station.

President Biden has repeatedly promised a “just transition” away from fossil fuels — and toward clean energy — for communities that have lost well-paying jobs from shuttered coal mines and coal plants. Indiana County, a deep-red county in a crucial swing state in the 2024 election, represents one of this pledge’s greatest tests.

To win Pennsylvania, Biden will need to convince voters in communities like this one that they won’t be left behind as the nation shifts to cleaner sources of power than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. But many residents here support Donald Trump, who has vowed to ease environmental regulations if he returns to the White House, in the hopes the former president could resurrect the Homer City Generating Station.

Biden has sought to pair his ambitious climate policies — some of which could accelerate the closure of coal plants — with economic aid for coal country. Soon after taking office, he established the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization to help coal communities get federal money. His signature climate law also provides generous subsidies for clean-energy investments in these communities.

The Homer City plant struggled to compete economically with cheaper natural gas and renewable energy even before Biden set tough new limits on pollution from power plants. But some locals are confident that Trump can revive it.

“I think if he gets back in, you’ll see this coal plant open back up,” said Tom Roser, 72, who worked at the plant for roughly 40 years before retiring in 2014.

During the recent meeting, members of Biden’s Interagency Working Group offered to help residents apply for federal grant money. But Brian Anderson, the executive director of the working group, said in an interview that he understands why some Pennsylvanians are frustrated at the federal government. He said many in West Virginia, where his grandfather was a coal miner, felt the same way.

“I come from a coal family and an energy community, and part of what has happened is people feel left behind. They feel forgotten,” Anderson said. “They feel like, ‘Well, we closed a mine and you’ve just forgotten about us.’”

Anderson acknowledged that “we’re not going to be wildly successful in every single community that has a coal mine or a power plant close and, you know, stave off all job losses,” but added, “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that the private sector is investing there and that the federal government is not turning its backs on any of those communities.”

Ali Zaidi, the White House national climate adviser, said in a phone interview that areas that once hosted fossil fuel infrastructure are receiving a disproportionate share of investments in new clean-energy projects spurred by Biden’s climate law.

“From the campaign through the transition to his first day in office, the president has prioritized lifting up the communities that have carried us on their backs,” Zaidi said.

The tricky politics of coal

Like much of U.S. coal country, Indiana County has moved to the right in recent decades.

The area was once a Democratic stronghold, with union workers at local coal mines voting reliably blue. But after the mines started closing and the union workers found jobs elsewhere, the region began trending toward Republicans, electing Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R) in 2018.

Though the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers endorsed Biden’s reelection bid in April 2023, some members of the local chapter here blame Homer City Generating Station’s closure on the administration’s environmental rules. The United Mine Workers of America, which represents roughly 8,000 U.S. coal miners, has not endorsed a presidential candidate since Barack Obama ran in 2008.

“Our union never endorsed either candidate because we didn’t see anybody saving our members’ jobs,” United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said. “People talk about a just transition, but there’s not any transition when something like this happens, when part of an economy collapses and thousands of people lose their jobs in the coal industry.”

Phil Smith, chief of staff for the United Mine Workers of America, said the Biden administration has supported the union in its negotiations with a company that extracts critical minerals from coal waste in southwestern Pennsylvania, which could generate jobs for out-of-work miners. But he said the term “just transition” is merely “a nice PR phrase.”

In 2016, Trump won 66.1 percent of the vote in Indiana County, compared with 48.8 percent statewide. His strong performance came after his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, said at a town hall that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” (Clinton later apologized for her comments, saying they had been taken “totally out of context” and that she supported spending $30 billion on economic aid for coal country.)

In 2020, Trump garnered 68.2 percent of the county’s vote, even as Biden won Pennsylvania. And today, Trump flags and billboards proliferate here.

While Trump has made more of an effort to court oil and gas donors than coal executives in recent months, a Washington Post analysis found that he has referenced coal just as often during this presidential campaign as during his first one.

Trump has referred to coal nine times on his platform Truth Social this election cycle, compared with eight times on the platform X during the 2016 campaign, according to the analysis. He also brought up coal 25 times at 16 rallies this campaign, The Post found, often while emphasizing China’s expansion of coal plants and railing against wind energy.

“Coal fires up the plants,” Trump said at a rally in Schnecksville, Pa., in April. “China right now is building a massive coal plant every single week. They’re opening up a coal plant every single week while we struggle with wind.”

In an email, Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said that “when President Trump is back in the White House the forgotten men and women of Pennsylvania will be forgotten no more, as President Trump will unleash American energy sources like coal, oil, and gas to ensure affordability for families and security in the world by making us a more self-sufficient nation.”

Despite these promises, the United States has continued to move away from coal — including during the Trump administration. U.S. coal output tumbled 26 percent from 2017 to 2023, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign contends that 382 coal-fired power plants have closed down or proposed to retire, with 148 remaining.

Herbie McAnulty, 79, a retired employee at the Homer City Generating Station, said Trump did what he could to reverse coal’s decline. “The thought was great,” he said. “I don’t know how much could be done.”

But Greg Fletcher, 68, a retired maintenance worker at area coal plants, said he plans to vote for Biden because Trump didn’t deliver.

“During the Trump era, they talked about loosening [environmental] standards but coal plants still closed. It was all talk,” Fletcher said in an interview on his front porch, where the shuttered Homer City plant’s massive smokestacks are visible in the distance.

As for Biden, he said, “as far as this industry goes, I don’t think he’s done it any favors.”

The reinvention of a coal town

The smokestacks of the Homer City Generating Station — the tallest in the United States at over 1,200 feet — have towered over the town since 1969. But steam billowed from them less and less often in their final years.

In the three years before it shuttered, the plant operated only 17 percent to 25 percent of the time, according to federal data. The owner of the plant cited competition with cheap natural gas as a reason for its closure in July 2023. Two other Pennsylvania coal plants — the Keystone and Conemaugh Generating Stations — are set to shutter by the end of 2028 to comply with Biden administration rules on wastewater discharge from power plants.

Since last summer, speculation has swirled about whether the Homer City site will be used for a new natural gas plant, or even a solar farm. William A. Wexler, chairman and CEO of Homer City Holdings LLC, declined to answer specific questions about the site’s future.

“Since the closure, the Board of Directors and the management team have worked tirelessly on a redevelopment plan that will create many more jobs over time than the ones lost a year ago and will further provide significant economic benefits to the region and the Commonwealth,” Wexler said in an email.

Homer City Holdings LLC is still paying real estate taxes for the plant. But when that money stops flowing, it will deal an economic blow to the Homer-Center School District, which relies on the plant for 12 percent of its real estate tax revenue, or about $749,000 a year.

“We could have to make some very tough decisions and look at all areas of the budget, from staffing to expenditures to capital projects on the horizon,” said Ralph Cecere Jr., superintendent of the school district, adding that $749,000 is enough to pay at least five teachers’ salaries.

Rob Nymick, the manager of Homer City Borough and Central Indiana County Water Authority, isn’t waiting for the smokestacks to come down to plan for the town’s future. He is seeking $11 million in state and federal grants to transform Homer City, a sleepy town of roughly 1,700 people, into an attraction for hikers, campers and anglers from Pittsburgh.

Nymick recently won nearly $3.8 million in federal funding to clean up the local creeks, which have been polluted by area coal mines for decades. Ribbons of rusty orange and milky white water flow into the blue-green creeks from the shuttered mines, and the stench of rotten eggs hangs in the air, deterring trout and fishermen alike. Statewide, the Interior Department has awarded $489 million worth of grants from the Abandoned Mine Land program in the bipartisan infrastructure law, according to the department.

But members of Congress from Pennsylvania rejected three of Homer City Borough’s requests for additional federal money to tear down blighted properties on Main Street. Once a vibrant thoroughfare during coal’s heyday, the street was completely empty of pedestrians on a recent June afternoon. No customers entered the only open businesses on the block — a pizza parlor, candy shop and used clothing store.

“We’re a coal community that has lost everything, so I don’t understand how we could lose out on this funding,” Nymick said.

Tonya Weller, Homer City Borough’s secretary, said the town cannot make the just transition touted by Biden officials on its own.

“We are the definition of a coal community,” she said. “That’s who we are, and we’re proud of it. But it’s no longer. So we have to reinvent ourselves. But we do not have the resources.”

Clara Ence Morse contributed to this report.


In a previous version of this article, Ralph Cecere Jr., the superintendent of the Homer-Center School District, incorrectly said the Homer City coal plant provides 12.4 percent of real estate tax revenue for the school district. After the article was published, he said the plant provides 12 percent. The article has been corrected.

Read More:How Biden’s promise to coal country became a warning for Democrats