Rep. Marko Liias wants Washington to stop using coal, and he wants it to stop soon.
The Edmonds Democrat introduced a bill Thursday that would require the Trans-Alta power plant near Centralia to start using cleaner energy sources by Dec. 31, 2015, a proposal environmental groups applauded and TransAlta representatives said would rush the process and eliminate jobs.
House Bill 1825 would move up the deadline by which the plant, Washington’s only coal-fired electricity generator, has to switch to a cleaner energy source. Under a 2009 executive order from Gov. Chris Gregoire, TransAlta has to make that transition by 2025.
Liias said the purpose of his bill was to get legislators talking about coal power in the state and how to phase it out as quickly as possible. He said he wasn’t committed to the 2015 date if there were technical obstacles to meeting that deadline.
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Craig Benjamin, a spokesman for an environmental lobbying group called the Environmental Priorities Coalition, said getting Liias’ bill through the Legislature is one of the group’s main priorities for the session.
“Burning coal is probably the worst thing we can do from an environmental perspective,” Benjamin said.
Furthermore, he said, Washington doesn’t see many benefits from the plant; much of the power it generates ends up being sold to California, and the company headquarters are in Calgary, Alberta, meaning profits end up in Canada.
Ecology Department spokesman Seth Preston said weaning the state off coal would significantly reduce air pollution and emissions of the greenhouse gases that lead to climate change.
The TransAlta plant contributes about 10 percent of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions, giving off about 10 million metric tons of the gases per year, Preston said.
According to a January report by a group called Environment Washington, the Centralia plant also ranked 125th in the nation in 2009 in terms of mercury pollution, emitting 361 pounds of the toxic metal. In response, TransAlta said it would install technology to reduce its mercury emissions 50 percent by 2012.
TransAlta spokeswoman Angela Mallow said the plant was working on phasing out coal by 2025, the year set by the governor, and moving the date up to 2015 was not feasible.
“From our viewpoint, we still need that time to protect jobs and provide a reliable energy supply,” she said .
Rep. Richard DeBolt, a Chehalis Republican and an external relations director at the TransAlta plant, said the bill would leave people in Centralia without work and jeopardize a steady power supply for the state.
"We care about this community, and it’s clear that the people who drafted this bill do not,” he said.
Liias’ bill includes a provision that would set up a decommissioning fund that would get its money from a fee paid by TransAlta. The money in the fund could be used to plan for future economic development in the area .
Jim Valley, director of the Chehalis-Centralia Chamber of Commerce, said he did not think this could compensate for the job losses that would come from shutting down the coal plant, especially given that Lewis County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
“With TransAlta, we have a consistent source for a tax base and family-wage jobs that we need,” Valley said.
Another bill that would affect TransAlta was also filed by Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, on Thursday. Her proposal, House Bill 1847, would repeal a sales-tax exemption for coal used in electricity generation in the state in an effort to raise money for Washington’s Basic Health insurance program.
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 katie.schmidt@thenewstribune .com