Centralia coal-fired plant bills draw protests to Capitol

Legislature: Deadline for converting to cleaner source being debated

February 16, 2011 

Some lawmakers want to hasten an end to coal-burning in Washington, a proposal that has environmental groups excited and workers from TransAlta, which runs the state’s only coal-fired power plant in Centralia, dismayed.

The Environmental Priorities Coalition and TransAlta brought a total of about 700 people to the Capitol for competing rallies Tuesday, with one side arguing that coal causes global warming and health problems, and the other saying that ending its use too quickly would devastate the economy.

The rallies centered on a hearing Tuesday on House Bill 1825, a measure sponsored by Rep. Marko Liias that would phase out coal-fired power in 2015, though the bill has a proposed substitute that would push the date to 2020. Another bill, Senate Bill 5769 by Sen. Phil Rockefeller, would set the deadline for ending coal power in 2020, and both would create a fund to cover the costs of decommissioning the coal plant and help finance future economic development in the Centralia area.

“It’s preparing our state for the future,” said Liias, D-Mukilteo, referring to his bill at the hearing. “Coal-burning is clearly a technology of the past.”

House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, a Chehalis Republican and director of external relations for the Centralia plant, led a rally for opponents of the bills Tuesday. They said the bills’ provisions would not compensate for the jobs Lewis County, which already has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, would lose if the coal-fired plant shut down.

The TransAlta plant has about 300 workers and pays an average wage of $88,000, according to Lou Florence, the TransAlta USA director in charge of the Centralia facility.

Trisha Quick, a benchmarking analyst at TransAlta, said she would probably lose her job if the plant had to shut down its coal-burning facility and she and her husband would have to move out of state to find work. “It’s scary to think about,” she said.

Government officials from the Centralia area also opposed the bill.

Ron Averill, a Lewis County commissioner, said his constituents had been hit over and over again with economic hardships including the closure of a coal mine there in 2006 and floods in 2007 and that decommissioning the coal plant would be devastating.

Environmental groups at the Capitol on Tuesday worked with Liias and Rockefeller to draft the measures, and they have made the coal phase-out bills one of their top four legislative priorities this session.

“We’re here because the TransAlta coal plant is the single largest polluter in Washington state,” said Doug Howell of the Sierra Club at a rally in favor of the bills. Representatives from student, faith and health care organizations also spoke in support of the measure.

Seth Preston of the Ecology Department said the TransAlta plant releases about 10 percent of the total greenhouse gases emitted in the state per year, giving off about 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global warming.

According to a January report by a group called Environment Washington, the Centralia plant also ranked 125th in the nation in terms of mercury pollution in 2009, emitting 361 pounds of the toxic metal. In response, TransAlta said it would install technology to reduce its mercury emissions by 50 percent by 2012.

Under a 2008 law, the state is supposed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, but according to an Ecology Department progress report on those benchmarks released last week, Washington is not on target to reach that goal.

Preston said cutting TransAlta off coal by 2020 would mean better progress toward the target, though in itself it probably would not be enough to get Washington back to 1990 levels.

The Ecology Department is already negotiating with TransAlta to try to decommission the coal-fired plant by 2025 under a 2009 executive order issued by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Executive orders do not carry the force of law, however, and so far the department and TransAlta have not reached an agreement. Preston said talks were ongoing, but there was no clear date by which the parties might reach a deal.

Even if they did, the Legislature would need to approve the agreement in order to make it binding, said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the governor. She said Gregoire was pleased that lawmakers were taking up the issue.

“We’re really at a point where the Legislature needs to step up and clarify what the state’s expectations are,” Rockefeller said.

Both TransAlta and Ecology Department officials said it was too early to say what might replace coal as a power source if either of the bills passes. Florence said natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal, would be an option, though TransAlta does not yet have permits to build a natural gas plant.

With more time, Florence said, TransAlta would be able to look at renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar as well, though he thought a 2015 or a 2020 deadline was too soon to make a smooth transition.

“Ten years is a very short period in the power generation business,” he said. He and others from TransAlta said they supported the 2025 deadline in the governor’s executive order.

In order to move forward, Liias’ bill would have to get a vote in the House Environment Committee and Rockefeller’s would have to be approved by the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee by Monday, the cutoff date for committees to vote on policy bills in their houses of origin. Neither bill is on the schedule for a vote.

Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 katie.schmidt@thenewstribune.com

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