TransAlta deal with state attracts criticism

Air Quality pact: Environmental groups say it doesn’t go far enough

June 23, 2010 

CENTRALIA - Environmental groups took issue Tuesday with an air quality agreement reached between the state and a coal-burning power plant in Lewis County, saying it does not go far enough in limiting toxic mercury emissions.

As part of the agreement, which was announced this week between the state Department of Ecology and Calgary, Alberta-based TransAlta, the company has agreed to reduce up to 50 percent of its mercury emissions and 20 percent of nitrogen oxides, an air pollutant that can cause “visibility-limiting haze in national parks and wilderness areas,” according to the state Department of Ecology.

The new pollution controls at the plant also must be “designed, installed and fully operating no later than Dec. 31, 2012,” Ecology officials said.

Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, reacted strongly to the agreement, saying a 50 percent mercury reduction is not enough and should match the 90-percent standard set in some other states, said Doug Howell, a senior representative of the Sierra Club.

“On the absolute most dangerous pollutant we are not demonstrating leadership,” Howell said about the state’s decision. “I expect the state to be a leader in the matter of public health and I’m concerned about the implications. It sends a very bad signal.”

Ecology air quality program spokesman Seth Preston said a 50 percent reduction in mercury at the plant was “realistically achievable.” Preston, too, has heard the argument that the plant should reduce mercury by 90 percent, but that is easier said than done, he said. “It’s not just a matter of saying one plant can achieve this so you could do the same at another plant,” Preston said. “Coal-burning plants are not assembled from a kit in a hardware store.”

Still, Ecology will take regulatory action against TransAlta if the company fails to implement the agreement by the end of 2012, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has to review the nitrogen oxide agreement, Preston said. The plant generates about 4 percent of the statewide total of nitrogen oxide, while vehicles emit about 56 percent, according to Ecology data.

TransAlta spokeswoman Marcy McAuley said the plant is on track to meet the agreement deadline. The company will spend $20 million to $30 million on the emissions-cutting technology to see what the technology can do at the 50 percent level and whether further reduction in mercury can be achieved after that, she said.

TransAlta acquired the Centralia plant in 2000. It generates about 10 percent of the state’s electricity needs, McAuley said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the Sierra Club and other environmental groups might respond to the agreement. On a separate issue, the Sierra Club plans to appeal an air quality permit issued to TransAlta to Thurston County Superior Court. “We will have our day in court on the issue of mercury,” Howell said.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403

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